Archive for the ‘sports’ Category

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Football memories: Who were we? Bulldogs!

September 3, 2010

Since my return to Edmonton, I’ve started reading the Calgary Herald as I walk home from work.

Herald photo (Bernie Morrison at right).

It may be an odd habit and an even odder sight (as I narrowly dodge a lamp post). But I grew up devouring the sports section of the Journal’s sister paper and never stopped cheering for the Flames and the Stamps. And there’s a convenient stack of papers on the way out of the newsroom.

This week, I was reading about the Stamps when I saw a picture of former linebacker Bernie Morrison. The Stamps are honouring Mr. Morrison, placing him on the ‘Wall of Fame’ along with Alondra and Will Johnson.

Bernie Morrison was one of a few ex-Stampeders who would come to NW Calgary’s Sir Winston Churchill high school each day to coach the junior football team in the mid-90s. Morrison coached linebackers, while our D-Line coach was the gentlemanly John Helton, another Stampeder Wall-of-Famer and #12 on TSN’s Top 50 CFL Players of all time.

Back then, I was an extremely shy 140 pound kid who liked playing sports. When I entered into high school, my friends and I decided to try out for football.

“You’ll never make it,” said my big brother. Thanks for that, bro.

I showed up on the first day wearing soccer cleats instead of football shoes. When I picked my helmet, I took an old one with a long grill — the old punters helmet (bad choice). I figured it would just be fun to see how I stacked up against others. Astonishingly, cut after cut, I managed to make the team, though most of my friends didn’t. I’m not judging the coaching staff, but they actually let me start at outside linebacker.

My memories of Bernie Morrison were of a guy who’d show up to practice about half an hour late — as soon as he could after work (in real estate? in insurance). Of the linebacker coaches, he was the good cop who gave us motivational speeches. Our other linebacker coach was the bad cop who would grab my face mask, cock an eye at me, and yell, “Contain, Witt, contain!!”

I don’t remember too much of Morrison. He was an impeccable dresser with massive arms. He didn’t say much to us individually, but would teach us the finer points of the game. In particular, I remember him teaching us techniques to ‘swim’ past the O-line.

I also remember one of the speeches he gave right before one of our playoff games. It went something like this:

“We need to get mean. Go out tonight and take a walk. Think about the game. Kick a dog if you have to. And if that doesn’t work, squeeze your left nut!”

It was fun to be part of something, but I never had the killer instinct to get mean. I certainly never kicked any dogs (or squeezed anything). I learned a lesson about football: I’m not that guy. And I think my coaches figured that out as well.

But looking back, I’m really thankful I got to play. It was great exercise — besides rugby and soccer, I have never run so much in my life. I was glad to be a part of something as a fledgling high school kid. It meant that despite my shyness, despite my reservations, I could actually contribute in a small way. And I could hold my head up as I walked through the halls.

So here’s a big thanks to Bernie Morrison, one of those coaches who took a couple of hours each day (five days a week for 3 months!) to teach some kids the game.

Here’s a story from the Sept 28, 1993 Calgary Herald, my first few days of high school and tryouts had just ended:

Planting Seeds at the Roots

Mental alarm bells clattered in a half-dozen Calgary offices as shadows lengthened Monday afternoon.

An elite corps of volunteers took heed, and downed tools. Just about 4 o`clock. Time for practice at Sir Winston Churchill high school.

Canadian Football League Hall of Famer John Helton offered apologies, and slipped away from a business meeting.

“You just have to say: ‘Excuse me,` ” shrugged the Schenley Award-winning lineman. He didn`t even have time to change his slacks.

Ex-Stampeder linebacker Bernie Morrison ducked out on his insurance business. Another Calgary linebacking legend, teacher Jim Furlong, got held up in a school meeting before escaping.

Real estate agent Gord Stewart, who once butted heads on the line, slipped out the side door. One-time CFL running back John McCorquindale bugged out of his physical therapy lab. Ex-Stamp Art Froese passed up another hunting trip.

Even some pro teams might kill to attract such a brain trust, if they could afford it.

But cash can`t buy what Churchill Bulldogs` football coach Greg Watson has in the bank — 1,500 volunteer coaching hours from six men with something substantial to offer 98 junior and senior ball players.

“I`ve got so many good coaches,” cackled Watson with a wink, “I can float. I`m nothing but a gofer out there.”

More seriously, the parents and kids of Churchill can only gain from Watson`s recruiting gifts, and the honest wish of six ex-pros to pass something worthwhile to fresh blood.

“I love the break,” admitted Morrison, still trim five years after leaving the game. “It`s just good being out on the field with enthusiastic people.

“After 15 years in football, it`s like you go through a withdrawal,” he said. “It`s a tough world out there. I`ve got something I believe I can give these kids.”

Big-name coaching help has become a tradition at Churchill, since Watson got an offer he couldn`t refuse from ex-quarterback Pete Ohler.

Hall of Famer Wayne Harris had sons at Churchill, so he was a natural. Since then, Watson and his paid assistants — they include Forrest Kennerd, brother of ex-placekicker Trevor — have pitched their pals and contacts.

Furlong met a Churchill track coach during a distance run. Froese, Stewart and McCorquindale had kids in Churchill athletics, and Stewart drafted Morrison. Helton was recruited through the Kennerds.

“It`s a joy to watch them progress,” said Stewart, silencing his belt pager, and indicating the juniors.

“We don`t holler and scold. Just pat `em on the back, and they`ll go out and bust their butts for you.”

Wearing dress shoes and pants, Helton watched the 14- and 15-year-old players.

He`d like to hone their football skills, and emphasize life skills, too.

“They don`t know what a defensive tackle is, or a slant pattern,” he grinned. “We`ve got to speak their language. When the team, as a unit, does its job, everybody wins.

“I tell `em: ‘That`s what life is. Sometimes bad things are going to happen, but you pick yourself up and go again.` “

According to one mother, an impact has been made.

Because of band and other commitments, her son decided to quit football. But he quoted his guest coaches in an English essay, and his parent took note.

“Was I impressed by his growth,” she wrote in gratitude. “My heartfelt thanks for your caring and sportsmanship that so obviously were transmitted to someone who didn`t stay to make the team.”

Those who stuck around won`t do badly, either.

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Sports journalism and public relations: The increasingly fuzzy line

April 28, 2010

An interesting discussion is happening over at one of my favourite hockey blogs, Kent Wilson’s Five Hole Fanatics, and at David Staples’s blog at the Edmonton Journal. Freelance blogger and journalist-turned-blogger both ask a key question (implicitly or explicitly): does having access to the Oilers or Flames locker rooms actually result in valuable analysis?

The answer, according to Wilson, is a decided meh.

This discussion overlaps with a case study I finished last week for my media ethics class where I talked about the somewhat incestuous relationship between sports journalists and PR. Do sports journalists (or other journalists) maintain a healthy enough distance from their subjects?

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Sports coverage is not exactly known for its hard-hitting investigative journalism.

Katie Stein (Flickr CC)

A sports reporter, more often than not, is a curmudgeonly homer with an affection for puns and classic rock references. Occasional criticism of a local team may involve a question or two about management or coaching decisions, but that’s a rarity. Part armchair coach, part booster, sports reporters pump stories full of quotes and do what they can to keep fans watching, listening, reading.

Teams, in turn, carefully cultivate this relationship to mutual benefit. It’s rare when a sports journalist breaks a story about troubled team dynamics, but equally rare when pundits step out of line and are denied access. When CBC’s Ron Maclean was critical of the on-ice theatrics of Vancouver Canuck Alexandre Burrows, the Canucks refused interviews with CBC the next week. Such incidents are few and far between.

Beyond the obvious symbiosis, the relationship between press and professional sports is often cozier than commonly known.

An editor at the Vancouver Courier did a double take last February while attending a Canucks game. Lisa Smedman noticed Shane Foxman, the CBC TV sports reporter for Vancouver, working the jumbotron crowd, pumping up ‘Nucks fans to yell their signature, “Luuuuuuuuu.” By day, Foxman covered the team for CBC, but was moonlighting with the club as an announcer and commercial break entertainer.

She was perplexed at the apparent conflict of interest. How could he be objective in his reporting on the Canucks while essentially working in their PR department?

Smedman – a prolific science fiction and fantasy writer who has only occasionally worked as a journalist – has a bit of an outsider vantage point on the big journalism outlets. As a result, she ran with the ethical conundrum in the pages of the Courier, repeatedly indicating her discomfort with Foxman’s dual role:

Does this mean CBC news anchor Ian Hanomansing could moonlight for the Board of Trade or VANOC? Or Ron Maclean for the Leafs? Foxman does a fine job on the CBC, but shouldn’t even the appearance of a conflict of interest be a concern?

She approached the local CBC for clarification and was rebuffed. The BC news director didn’t see a conflict in the situation. There’s a clear distinction between sports and news, she was told; Foxman’s part-time gig could be positive for CBC news ratings, since a more recognizable TV personality is a better draw for local viewers.

These kinds of curious relationships are not isolated to a single broadcaster or medium. A few months after the Courier article, the Olympics offered further examples of apparent conflicts of interest. CTV reporters took flack for running lengths of the torch relay, awkwardly stepping into the story they used to only cover.

A lesser known kerfuffle happened when Tyee reporter Andrew Macleod broke a story about Jeff Lee, Olympic reporter for the Vancouver Sun. Despite his full-time assignment of covering an international event with only a slim majority of local approval, Lee collected payment for a feature article written for the IOC’s magazine. The early 2009 editions of Olympic Report featured “Feeling the Buzz” a pillowy soft feature penned by Lee which chronicled ongoing preparations for the 2010 Olympics.

Jeff Lee speaking to the Pacific Pin Club in Vancouver

To underline the point that Lee’s piece was mere advertorial, Macleod quoted Lee’s piece and mentioned IOC chief Jacques Rogge’s foreword. Despite assuming a predominantly neutral tone in the rest of the piece, and allowing plenty of space for Lee to object and inject a final word, the result is the clear allegation of a conflict of interest (and a plea for disclosure of similar conflicts):

Wrote Lee, “In the six years since that moment in Prague, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), with Furlong still at its helm, has continued to move mountains, if not literally then certainly figuratively.”

Corporate sponsors have brought “financial muscle” to the organization, venues have been built on time, buyers have snapped up tickets and the games include economic and cultural opportunities for indigenous people, he found.

“More importantly, Canada as a country adopted the message of the Olympic movement as a unifying force for humankind through sports.”

Doctors may be the worst patients, but journalists can clearly make for poor interviews. Lee didn’t help his case with his response. Obviously annoyed that his journalistic integrity was being called into question, Lee turned defensive and snarky. He scolded Macleod for a “bullshit” accusation of impropriety, called it a “cheap shot,” “mischief making,” and an “attack story” before the article had even been posted. In his own defense, he insisted his editors had been okay with the piece and that his relationship with VANOC was duly strained due to less than flattering coverage in the Sun. After the online article appeared, Lee popped up in the comment section, lambasting anonymous readers for not actually owning up to their criticism of his integrity.

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These two stories had several common features. Both Foxman and Lee were called in question for using specialist knowledge to sell cheerleading services on a freelance basis. Both had the blessing of employers who didn’t believe the outside work affected their daily coverage.

The Courier and Tyee articles were also similar in construction and tone. Both were written by journalists at small media outlets criticizing senior journalists at major media organizations (with a history of trying to take on the big guys). Both invoked the opinions of “experts” who claimed there was a mild but preventable breech of trust. And both stories were framed in ways that portrayed a journalist in a conflict of interest.

But were either of these media types violating their journalistic allegiance to citizens? An interesting question with a less than obvious answer.

If you assume a covenant between journalist and the public, it seems a bit of a slam dunk. Given the choice to appear more or less ethical, it’s a no-brainer to err on the side of scruples. If the question is framed as whether or not to operate on both sides of the blurry line of press and PR? Again, slam dunk.

A mitigating factor in these stories, however, is the nature of the reporting. Because sports or entertainment reporting often involves semi-boosterism, there may be less of a public expectation of neutrality. The CBC sports reporter was singled out by Smedman partly because he works for the public broadcaster, which meant an additional set of expectations not typically demanded from other outlets. Foxman moonlights on the weekends as an announcer for the team, a local radio reporter performs the same task on weekdays. Smedman felt less of a breech of ethics for the radio persona.

But is there really much danger in sports reporters performing PR roles? Should the protection of integrity be the responsibility of the journalist or the media corporation informed about the freelance work? Smedman’s article raises these questions in another, analogous way. While it’s one thing for Foxman to plug the Canucks to paying customers, it might be different if Ian Hanomansing was working as a communications liaison for the Vancouver Board of Trade. But news anchors routinely appear as moderators or public speakers at corporate functions. When do these appearances become a violation of a public covenant? If I were to hazard a guess, I would argue that it depends on the job and the way in which the journalist presents themselves. In addition, politics seem a special case: journalists cross the line when they enter the political realm and side with a particular party. In any case, public figures run the risk of overexposure.

A second mitigating factor is the changing economic climate facing conventional journalism, means increased contract and freelance work. A sharp distinction between journalism and communications quickly disappears when you’re trying to make ends meet. In a freelance climate, journalists can see themselves not so much as truth-seeking servants of the public sphere, but as hired communicators serving the needs of corporate contract partners in exchange for a clearly delineated time and payment. The onus in freelance journalism shifts mostly to the media organization, which has to sell the integrity of its journalistic product. The public, meanwhile, increasingly must play a role in differentiating between types of information.

Regardless of whether Foxman and Lee are considered guilty of compromising their integrity, the too cozy relationship between press and sports may already be shaping the future of sports reporting. In the last five or so years, a proliferation of blogs have sprung up around most professional sports teams. Instead of relying on expensive access to athletes, legions of minimally-paid but passionate hockey bloggers rely on several advanced statistical methods of analysis which factor in possession, puck movement, chances, and quality of competition.

Communities of devoted fans form as lively discussion boards provide a high level of interaction with other passionate fans. Many assume that mainstream media (or “MSM,” that blogger’s cuss word) is too close to team machinations to provide sound feedback.

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King Carl Gustaf and me

March 9, 2010

For many Canadians, last Monday marked a return to reality. It doesn’t get any more mundane than Monday, March 1st.

Whether you spent the last hours of February reveling in beer-induced patriotism, or in grim avoidance of that I Believe song, it’s definitely a bit of a downer from Olympic reverie. Years from now, how many children born in November 2010 will look back to Sidney Crosby’s heroics as inspiring a glint in their father’s eye?

UBC cancelled school for the two Olympic weeks. A perfect opportunity for journalism students to make some hay! I took a job as a media liaison officer with Olympic Broadcasting Services.

It meant working with biathletes, ski jumpers, and cross-country skiiers, as well as Olympic broadcasters of an array of nationalities. I was a broadcaster bouncer, an interview timer, and a media cop both good and bad (depending on the situation).

It also meant rubbing shoulders with some interesting folks. Here’s me with a Swedish coterie, including His Highness Carl XVI Gustaf.

King Carl XVI Gustaf (centre, in ball cap), me in Power Ranger uniform.

Coming down into from three weeks in Whistler village, I only have a modest Olympic hangover. At $7-8 pints, I couldn’t afford anything more.

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Thunderbird TV: Scholastic punishment?

November 14, 2009

November, in the words of my Advanced TV prof, is “hell month.”

That might be a tad bit dramatic (let’s call it “somewhat scholastically punitive month”), but it explains my current slothfulness on this site. Advanced TV has been a big part of my miseries.

Picture 1Apparently, it’s been equally punitive for the powers that be in Advanced TV. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken so long for our new UBC j-skool website to appear: ThunderbirdTV.ca.

Beyond the riveting opening theme and pirated Joy TV set (a studio in Surrey, a current workplace for our Emmy award winning prof, Peter W. Klein) are the pieces constructed by my colleagues and I.

Buried deep (= last) in this inaugural T-birdtv newscast is my piece on the Abbotsford Heat. It’s essentially the same piece I already placed on YouTube, but with some colour correction and different fonts for the “lower thirds” (the names of folks interviewed).

So sit back and enjoy two-month-old news! I dare you! The next installment of scholastic punishment will be coming in a couple of weeks.

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The Heat is On!

October 10, 2009

I may be out of the country, but check out my first video project for Advanced TV class:

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I Heart NHL Trade Deadline Day (and the Improved Calgary Flames)

March 5, 2009

I woke up yesterday morning with a little extra kick in my step. A little sparkle in my eye. A little… well, you get the point.

See, it was trade deadline day for the NHL. For me, the allure of the day never seems to fail me, despite the fact that Calgary Flames GM Darryl Sutter rarely makes a momentous move. That sly old dog knows an inflated price when he sees one.

Photo by D'Arcy Norman (Flickr CC)

Photo by D'Arcy Norman (Flickr CC)

Still, I love NHL trade deadline day. For you see, there’s a little bit of pixie dust in the air… Sorry, there I go again.

Lo and Behold, my usual post-deadline disappointment was conspicuously absent this year. For you see, this was a killer trade deadline for Calgary Flames fans, and a mind-numbingly boring day for everyone else.

A day of infamy, a moment of triumph, a fantabulous, splendiferous…. Oh never mind.

Trade #1: Bucket of hockey pucks for Jordan Leopold:
Okay, not really a bucket of hockey pucks, but as close as possible.
– Lawrence Nycholat = picked off waiver wire yesterday = free
– Ryan Wilson = undrafted free agent signing = free
– A 2009 2nd Round Draft Pick. Well, it was a little bonus on the day the Flames traded Alex Tanguay, received Mike Cammaleri, and moved from 17th to 25th in the entry draft. Let’s call it a freebie too.

Verdict: Nothing for something? Very very very nice.

Trade #2: Matthew Lombardi, Brandon Prust & 1st Rounder for Olli Jokinen:

Photo by Point n Shoot (Flickr CC)

Photo by pointnshoot (Flickr CC)

The Flames world is divided on this one, much to the bewilderment of some pundits. For you see, Jokinen is clearly the bigger name (and ergo, better player). Hockey writers worldwide (or at least in Toronto) see Jokinen as the #1 centre Calgary needs, much needed scoring, blah blah blah blah, whatever they’ve heard since they never watch the Flames anyway.

Never mind that Calgary has a highly underrated, brilliant #1 centre (Daymond Langkow), or that Calgary’s getting plenty of scoring this year from its deepest group of forwards in well over a decade.

But Flames fans message boards and blogs keep bringing up several points of contention:
– Lombardi is a better value ($1.8 mill/yr) than Jokinen ($5.25 mill/yr)
– Jokinen has been called a “cancer” in the locker room
– Jokinen’s +/- is terrible (-5) compared to Lombardi (+11)….

Plus there’s a spot in most Flames fans’ hearts for Lombardi. We all like that speed, occasional scoring touch, and winning smile from a guy who’s also great on the PK. We all think he’s on the cusp of breaking out, becoming an elite player, and what have you.

Still, complain all you want, it’s hard to argue that Jokinen isn’t potentially a major upgrade, with his many 30+ goal seasons on very weak teams.

Verdict: Very nice. Well maybe. We’ll see.

The great thing about trade deadline day is that it’s all debatable. All of it. And while all deals can’t be seen as a sweet blessing, like the Jordan Leopold deal, they can at least give hockey fans plenty of material to analyze, like the Jokinen deal.

It’s entirely a day of imagined worlds (but not those boring ones from philosophy class), a moment for fans of the would be, the team one trade away from greatness, or whatever that intangible quality (spark, hustle, grit, skill, etc.) a team requires.

That’s what puts a grin on our face, a song in our heart, a rainbow in the… Oh never mind.

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News Seeking: “Church is Out!” – The Spirituality of Hockey

January 27, 2009

CBC’s Ron Maclean signed off at the 2009 NHL All-Star game with an unusual comment: “Church is out!”

And while Maclean’s non sequitir followed comments about wearing uncomfortable clothes on a Sunday, he is not alone in casually comparing Canada’s cherished sport and traditional religion.

Photo by Borman818 (Flickr's Creative Commons Attribution License)

Photo by Borman818 (Flickr's Creative Commons Attribution License)

During the All-Star weekend, Vincent Lecavelier responded to trade rumours that would transport him to the sacred ground of Montreal’s Bell Centre. “It’s basically like a religion here. Everybody loves the Canadiens,” said the Lightening captain.

CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos went even further in the Globe and Mail: “hockey is my religion, the Canadiens are my god, so this then was my cathedral.”

As strange as such comments may be, they reflect a Canadian fascination with comparing hockey and religion, particularly for fans of Les Habitants. Over the past year, numerous papers have reported on the religiosity of Canadiens fans, including a recent feature in the New York Times, as well as Canadian Press and Globe and Mail reports about a University of Montreal course (and book) on hockey and divinity.

But media reports about the religiosity of hockey extend well beyond La Belle Province. Doug Todd, The Vancouver Sun spirituality and ethics writer, recently breached the subject in his post, “Are Trevor Linden and Mats Sundin Bigger Than Jesus?” After looking at the fawning coverage of two Canuck heroes last year, Todd answered in the affirmative: “In popular secular Canadian culture, these hockey celebrities draw much more devotion, more psychic energy, than Jesus Christ.”

While all these examples are recent, there are hosts of “puckish” reflections from revered journalists on the deeper meanings of the game. Longtime Morningside host Peter Gzowski used to wax eloquent about the game, while prolific columnist Roy McGregor continues to do so.

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik (Flickr's Creative Commons Attribution License)

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik (Flickr's Creative Commons Attribution License)

But what do these kinds of stories really mean? Are they really news?

I think the answers are “not much” and “not really.”

Except that many people, like me, really, really, REALLY like hockey.

Many Canadians follow hockey on a daily basis, scrutinizing box scores or standings like scriptures or prayer books. Many Canadians get caught up in the euphoria of the game, much like the feelings associated with worship. And when people participate together in sports, they experience a church-like connection with other people.

Oh yeah, and puck-heads are asked to give until it hurts. For many, hockey is synonymous with financial sacrifice, a show of true devotion and faith in difficult economic times.

But that’s hardly the same thing as ascribing ultimate meaning to the game.

Perhaps the reflexive Canadian comparison of hockey and religion is a vestige of a disappearing formal religiosity. As institutional religion continues to give way to a broader, more fractured, individualized spirituality, people naturally ascribe religious characteristics to other parts of life.

Maybe there’s a little bit of residual guilt: sports fandom is hard to explain or justify (particularly for Leafs and Canucks fans). I’m speaking from personal experience. Invoking religious passion and good old patriotism at least makes it seem a little less ridiculous.

Photo by Starbuck (Flickr's Creative Commons Attribution License)

Photo by Starbuck (Flickr's Creative Commons Attribution License)

Then again, the sports and religion angle might simply be an easily filed story for a type of journalism known for stretching puns and metaphors beyond the point of disintegration. It would go a long way in explaining why the Canadian devotion to the hockey gods is by no means exclusive. While hockey (in the broader sense) is also a religion for Latvians and Tamils, American sportswriters frequently muse about the religious dimensions of baseball, football, and basketball.

Church is out.