The Inlander/ Feb. 1, 2008
The suspension of high school athletes is newsworthy, especially when it affects a game's outcome.
Newspapers also can make a case that by identifying the disciplined youths, they are looking out for their best welfare – though that may not be immediately recognized by students, parents or coaches.
Consider these recent examples:
The leading rusher of a high school football team is suspended after being cited with 23 others for alcohol possession. A volleyball player is kicked off a team for falsifying her home address. An undefeated football team is forced to forfeit seven victories, and thus miss the playoffs, after a player is ruled transfer ineligible.
The athletes were identified in the first two instances. The editor withheld the name in the third case, explaining, “We wanted to treat him with the respect of someone who is underage. It’s the same reason we withhold the names of minors – there shouldn’t be something that follows you forever.”
These incidents should be pause for all newspapers to set policy for how they report high school athlete suspensions which are becoming quite commonplace. In fact, newsroom deliberations are broader. How do newspapers report the absence of the lead in the school musical, or how do they acknowledge the debate team which fails to advance due to an ineligible student?
Nowhere is community pride reflected more strongly than in high school extracurricular activities – especially sports. The widespread attention is why community newspapers should report the accomplishments and shortcomings of teams and individual participants.
Fans deserve to know why athletes, in particular those who are integral to a team's success, miss a game. In some cases, newspapers' credibility is at stake. For example:
* A baseball team was poised to make a playoff run. The night before a game, the players gathered for a beer party. They were caught, and several starters were among those suspended. The team lost, depleted of many key players. The story became front-page news.
* A golf team, fresh off a playoff victory, had high hopes for a state tournament appearance. But officials stripped a golfer of medalist honors because he was chewing tobacco on the course – a high school league violation – and suspended him from further competition. The newspaper reported the discipline as part of the story. The team, minus its leader, lost in the next round.
* A basketball team, picked to be one of the top teams in the state, was cruising along. An unexpected detour occurred when two starters were scratched from the lineup. One was held out due to disciplinary reasons; the other was visiting a college for a potential sports scholarship. The team lost to a clearly inferior opponent, and the newspaper, in a sentence, explained the reasons for each player's absence.
The issue of reporting suspensions goes beyond detailing a team’s successes and failures. It quite often involves chemical health and as such is part of a far greater community discussion.
Newspapers will not win a lot of points for identifying disciplinary actions against students. That doesn't mean they should shirk from reporting the facts. Missing players can affect a team's performance. If a player is injured, it's reported. If someone is out for other reasons, such as a family emergency, that ought to be told, too.
There are other reasons for telling the truth. For example, suspended players, looking perfectly healthy, sit on the bench during a game. Fans deserve to be told why. Or a general statement – "several players were missing either due to suspensions or injuries" – unfairly brands everyone.
Newspapers also can make a case for constructing suspensions as "good news." Each report is an acknowledgement that coaches are holding youths accountable for their actions. It's a positive reflection on playing by the rules as opposed to winning at any cost.
Are editors sensationalizing suspensions only to sell more newspapers? Such criticism is an insult to the resources and space that most newspapers devote to promoting high school sports. If sensationalism were the intent, an athlete's photo and name would be in front-page headlines.
Newspapers and their readers should view the issue of suspensions – especially those involving alcohol and drugs – in the context of a communitywide concern. Coaches can use the suspension to work positively with youths, and make them better for it. Newspapers can become a partner in being part of the solution.
The underlying reason for acknowledging both achievements and missteps of high school athletes was stated matter-of-factly by a longtime sports booster who was quizzed on the policy. He hadn't really given much thought to it. Pressed a little further, he said it might be a bit embarrassing to the youth. But, he added, "It's the truth."
The preponderance of community journalism about high school sports is "good news." It may involve the winning score, the decisive volley or the perfect dive. Newspapers send the wrong message to young people by reporting only the feats that make them heroes and not the mistakes that reveal them as human.