March Madness (which leaks over to April) is always presented as this thrill ride of possibility, a grand adventure only the most fortunate get to take part in, an athletic festival.
I suppose it is all that … until the men’s and women’s tournaments actually start, and it just becomes almost like this demonic game of musical chairs. Where being in the right place at the right time – i.e. in front on the scoreboard when the game clock expires – is often a matter of chance. And every round, somebody you think still belongs has to go.
If you are a writer covering the entire tournament and not just one specific team – which has been the case for me for ESPN.com since 1996 – then you never cover a “victory.” Every game you watch and write about, you are experiencing both sides because you listen to and ask questions of the winners and the ones who didn’t win.
You hear the relieved laugher of the victors in press conferences and their locker rooms. They’ve escaped to play another day. You hear the oppressive silence and the quiet sobbing of those whose seasons and/or college careers are over. You never think of one side without the other. There is never just joy and there is never just sadness. There is always both, intertwined.
It doesn’t change anything for me in regard to who wins – I write my columns no matter the outcome. But I know that outcome can change a lot in the lives of the participants.
Further, because of the access we have to them as journalists, we see the players usually even before their friends and family do. We see them when their happiness or their pain is still very fresh, and I believe we should respect their feelings just as much as if they actually were our own.
Locker rooms are open to the media after games for a designated period, and during this time, nobody ever gets undressed (at least not in women’s college basketball). Players cut off their tape. They get ice on their ankles, knees, shoulders or wherever they need it. They may get something to eat. They might chat with each other. A few read. Some might sneak looks at their cell phones, but I haven’t really seen that much.
Mostly, they just sit or stand and wait for the time to pass.
If it’s a winning locker room, that scene is not all that bad. Sometimes crowded and a bit annoying, but that’s it.
If it’s a losing locker room and there’s a decently large media presence, it’s usually pretty morose and there is little background noise coming from those not being interviewed. They are typically not talking to each other, but just staring at the floor.
And if it’s a losing locker room and there’s little or no media presence, that’s about the worst of all. They basically sit for a half-hour or so, waiting to be able to shower and start the process of moving away from the loss. They’re asked to stew in their misery.
I hate that they have to do that.
But there’s not an easy answer to avoiding it. The locker-room access really does provide better stories because you get time to talk to the players in a setting that’s conducive to them being more themselves. If you’ve seen the set up for the standard NCAA press conference, you know that’s not conducive to anybody being themselves. The athletes and coaches are sitting up on a podium with microphones in front of them and bright lights coming from the cameras in the back of the room. The reporters are sitting in chairs on the floor, looking up at the players/coaches.
This gets us reporters out of the way of the cameras’ view, of course, but also creates the worst sense of imbalance in our interaction. Try sitting in a chair and talking to someone seated 3-4 feet above you with lights shining at them. See how stiff and wooden the conversation is. Plus, I just don’t like that literal physical sense that we are not “on their level.” I like to look a person in the eye when I’m talking to him or her, not have them stare down at me.
Coaches tend to be experienced at this and still give good answers despite the awkward environment that many press conferences are. But players often don’t give good answers … in fact, they give short, boring, cliche-ridden, trite responses that almost nobody uses in their stories anyway. It’s a waste of time for both parties.
That’s certainly not the case with all players, mind you, and it does depend on the circumstances at times. Sometimes, the stuff from press conferences is just fine. They are a necessary evil (which I know even in those times I think they are just plain evil.)
But the journalists’ lament – “kids are terrible on the podium” – is true more often than not. You want to get more insight from a player, and so you go to the locker room. The same kid who robotically said, “We just want to give it our best to win the game,” on the podium – a “quote” that went straight to the reporters’ mental guillotine, by the way _ could be completely different if you are talking to her face to face with no microphones, cameras and a whole room listening.
So that’s why we have open locker rooms, and thus they are a necessary evil, too (which I also know even in those times I think they are just plain evil.)
But Saturday was one of those times they seemed just plain evil.
Unless I missed it, there was no one here in Raleigh who this season specifically was assigned to cover Vanderbilt, which last time I checked was located in a relatively large city called Nashville that cares about the university, in a state that cares about women’s basketball.
Things are so bad in newspapers now nothing really surprises me, but it still irritates me.
The story that ran on the Nashville Tennessean’s web site was written by USA Today’s J. Michael Falgoust, with the headline: “Vanderbilt women fumble large lead” and the sub-head: “Commodores lose to Maryland again.” Reporters don’t write their own headlines; someone who edited the story came up with that one.
Because that really says it all, doesn’t it? Sheesh.
The undersized Commodores gave Maryland a fight to the finish. They were beaten by an All-American who scored 42 points. Anybody who actually watched Vanderbilt in this game came away with two main thoughts about the Commodores: “Christina Wirth and Jennifer Risper are really good players, and the entire team played their tails off to get this far in the tournament.”
But the hometown paper did not have its own reporter here (and this isn’t just happening to women’s basketball, it’s happening to all kinds of stuff. But it’s REALLY happening to women’s basketball.) There was no local columnist here to say a proper goodbye to Wirth and Risper, the kind of young people who make a whole community proud.
This is where the newspaper business is now, though. I’m really not picking on The Tennessean. There are good reporters and columnist there who I’m sure are just as mortified about what’s happened to newspapers as all of us in the business are. Hey, the Kansas City Star used Associated Press stories on Kansas State’s women in the NCAA tournament. I’m using these as examples, but there are countless more across the country.
Anyway … the Vanderbilt locker room stayed open for a half-hour after the loss to Maryland, except there was really no one there to truly chronicle Vandy’s experience. Or, like I said, if there was, I really didn’t see them.
Anyway, I was writing a column for ESPN.com that was mostly on the winner, Maryland, and I was on deadline. Yet I walked past the Vandy locker room, glanced in and saw the players all sitting there, some slumped and silently crying in their chairs, waiting until the door could finally be closed. No one from the media was talking to any of them.
I had this urge to lean in and say, “You guys should be proud of yourselves. Your school and your alumni should be proud. Don’t be so sad … you’re all going to be successes in life. That’s obvious in how you play.”
I didn’t though, because it would have seemed corny and goofy and out of place … but I did go in and talk to Risper.
And here’s what she said: “This was a battle, and you want to be in a battle with the right people. And every day, I feel like I’m in the right place with the right people. I love my teammates.
“I’m totally proud of us. It’s hard because we didn’t get the win, but we showed who Vanderbilt was. I always thought of my basketball career that if I played with 110 percent that no matter what, I could never walk off the court like a loser.”
This is the essence of March misery … and it’s also part of March triumph. It really isn’t all about winning the game.
This is still not as complete a picture of Vanderbilt – not by any means – as you could have gotten right after the game from someone who’d covered the team all year. But it’s at least a much more accurate reflection of the Commodores than the idea that they – or anyone other group of players who put their hearts on the line in March – ever fumbled away anything.