Quotaggedon

20 Nov

The days following Nebraska’s blowout loss at Wisconsin have been anything but dull.  One of the prevalent themes I’ve noticed are fans and media reacting (or in some cases, overreacting) to things said by coaches and players.  Here are four quotes that have been triggered the most reaction this week:

From Josh Mitchell on if NU should wear their Blackshirts in practice this week*:

“Personally, no I don’t think we should (wear them).  I think they stand for something better than we put out on film. I think it would kind of just be a disgrace to the former players who earned the right to wear them if we went out and wore them at practice this week.”

*It is worth noting that Mitchell was one of a handful of defensive starters who wore their Blackshirt to practice later the same day, which certainly played a big role in this quote getting legs.

From Jake Cotton on why the offensive line tends to commit false start penalties in big games:

“You’re just so dialed-in to what you’re going to do during the play.  You gotta take this footwork, you gotta do this, you gotta do that. And so I think when you’re thinking about all that stuff, you kind of get tunnel vision, and that’s when it hurts you.

“The lack of concentration isn’t that we were just thinking about class or girls or anything like that. It’s that we were thinking about the play and should have been more dialed-in to the snap count.”

From Kenny Bell on talk that Pelini should be fired:

“Anybody who says (Pelini) needs to go is crazy.  It’s literally insane. If nine wins, 10 wins isn’t good enough for you, man, I don’t know who you should be a fan of, honestly.

“The guy can’t do much more but win. Obviously, we want conference championships. But sometimes it’s not in the cards. It’s not easy to come out and win every single week.

“Give me a break. It’s absurd. It’s like me telling the mailman since he missed my mail a day, or dropped one in the snow, he should be fired. It blows my mind sometimes, the way people think.”

And finally, from Bo Pelini responding to a caller to his radio who asked about the direction of the program:

“If that isn’t the right direction, then you have a conversation with Shawn Eichorst and they’re free to go in another direction.”

I’m sure you can imagine the amount of hot takes, Twitter rage, indignant calls to sports talk shows, and pontificating that resulted from those quotes.

I’ll freely acknowledge that I probably could opine for 2,000 words on each one of these quotes.

But that would make me a hypocrite considering what I’m about to write…

 *   *   *

It is completely understandable that after an ugly loss, fans and media will try to look for answers.  They’ll try to find root causes, seek evidence to support their theories, or try to find ammunition to further their agenda about the program and its leadership.  But reading too much into a single quote – especially when you may not know the context or inflection with which it was said – is dangerous territory.

The example I’ll give is the infamous “we don’t need him” quote from Pelini after the 2013 UCLA game – where the “him” in question was Husker legend Tommie Frazier.  When you read those four words, they smack you right in the face, and force you to take notice – which is why media outlets who are primarily concerned about clicks, page views, and web traffic used that quote in their headline.

But…

Did you ever hear the audio of Pelini saying those words?  He was not particularly forceful, not in Angry Bo mode, nor did it appear as if he had those remarks cued up and ready to go.*

*Which was a separate mistake that I discussed here.

In the audio, he pauses and stammers and it appears as if he momentarily searches for a way to better articulate his feelings before saying “we don’t need him”.  That’s not me being a Pelini apologist, that is factual.  (And if you really want to look at things from an impartial standpoint – instead of one that is reverent to an all time great – to a certain extent, Pelini had a point – but is a separate conversation)

The point is, blind reaction to quotes without knowing context is a fool’s game.  Yet, how often do we seek out the context of a quote or listen/watch it being said before we react?

*   *   *

One of the other things that stuck in my craw after Saturday’s loss was the tweets from a handful of Nebraska media members who made a point of noting that no defenders chose to speak to the media, nor did quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr.  The way these tweets came across, it felt to me like these players were being called out for ducking the media, with the implication being that by not talking they were failing as team leaders.

Certainly, I can understand this from a media perspective.  If I am relying on player quotes to round out my article or highlight package that has to be done on a tight deadline, it must be frustrating to not get any useful material.  I would want to be able to quote the quarterback or the captains – not the punter.

But as a fan?  I don’t lose sleep over a lack of generic noise (“we had a good week of practice”, “we need to go get ready for a very tough team next week”, “tip your cap to Wisconsin”).  For the most part, the sound bytes they get are filler with no nutritional value.

Unless those sound bytes contain something a little too honest, a little too juicy, or something that can be interpreted in multipe ways.  Then, that media member has suddenly stumbled on the foundation for a separate article, column, or radio segment,,,

*   *   *

If I were a college football player, I would really question what is the benefit for me to talk to the media.

Giving interviews isn’t going to help my grades, get me more playing time, help me win awards, or boost my draft stock.  I can’t (legally) make money off my name, likeness, or sales of my jersey number, so being active with the media isn’t going to make me more marketable.

I’ve already been a highly touted athlete for years, so seeing my name in the paper or my face on TV probably is not as big of a thrill as it once was.  Maybe a cute girl sees me on TV and hits me up on Facebook or Twitter, but as a big time college athlete, meeting girls is probably not a big issue for me.

Seriously, why should athletes talk to the media?

I’ve heard some fans and media members who say that players need to be “accountable” by talking after games.  Giving interviews shows “leadership”, “integrity”, and other inspirational adjectives that make middle-aged guys feel good.

When a player declines an interview request after a game (win or lose) some fans and media are quick to call him out and make thinly veiled swipes at his leadership and maturity (see also: Martinez, Taylor).  But when that player does speak, we’re all too quick to put his words under the microscope or run them through some super computer to filter out clichés and check for sincerity,  signs of dissent, or other hidden messages that may be lurking between the lines.

It is a ridiculous double standard.  Why should a player have to deal with that?

*   *   *

Wednesday morning, Mike Schaefer co-hosted the Sharp & Benning radio show.  During a discussion about Bell’s remarks, he Schaefer offered an excellent (and telling) opinion:

“We (the fans and media) elevate a spur of the moment quote from an 18-22 year old kid.”

“(As a professional who covers the team) I put too much weight on a kid that is 21 that is probably thinking when I’m asking him the question ‘I wonder what they have at the training table for dinner tonight?  I hope it’s this’ or ‘I can’t wait to see my girlfriend’.

“I don’t think they actively sit and think about the questions of which we ask them as much as we actively sit and rehash the 12 second quote that comes out of it.  Which is how you end up with players saying things like Josh Mitchell…And then you have people going on tirades on the message board.

“So much gets made of these quotes of in the moment situations for guys that are 18-22 that aren’t putting as much thought into it when they say it, as people are in evaluating every single line in that quote.”

*   *   *

My purpose in writing this is not to say that we should stop interviewing student athletes.  We do learn a lot about these young men through the interviews and profile pieces done by the talented journalists in the Nebraska press corps.  Likewise, I’m not saying that we ignore or discount the things student athletes say in their interview and press conferences.  There are important insights than can be gleaned and valuable pieces of information that can be ascertained – even if the messenger is thinking more about that hottie in Econ than he is on the impact his words may have when they hit the front page of the Sports section tomorrow morning.*

*And maybe, another action item is for the Athletic Department to make sure their student athletes have some media training / public speaking experience under their belt before they are released into the land of microphones and smart phones.  Teach them to think before they speak, consider the impact of their words, and help them understand the role the media plays – and how that can benefit the player and program.  

I would hope (if not assume) that the University is already doing this, but if you have senior captains saying things that make folks inside the program cringe, it might be worth increasing your efforts.

In my opinion, the pendulum on how we as fans and consumers of the Nebraska Football media machine has swung too far to one side.  We look for “gotcha” moments and words that support our pet theories instead of taking what a player says at face value.  It is a behavior that could ultimately threaten the type and amount of access and information we crave.  So stop over-analyzing every word to come out of a 20-year-old kid’s mouth.

You can quote me on that.

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