Any fan of professional sports begins to notice a pattern among athletes during interviews. The language seems recycled, every athlete talking about either how well the team is doing and what they need to continue doing, or why the team is struggling and where they need improvement.
There is a script that is followed, a formula that allows athletes to mould their answers into generic, vague statements about the state of their team regardless of the question. This script is a way to prevent athletes from speaking off the cuff about how they truly feel about their organization and going against their management’s wishes.
The athletes themselves do not develop these answers. Before meeting with the media, athletes are briefed by team staff who instruct them on what points they should touch on during interviews and what to avoid. This is known as “media training” and is a necessary part of any athlete’s experience at the professional level. With the social media–inundated culture we live in, athletes at all levels are being trained to portray an appropriate public persona.
The media and athletes often ask the same questions and receive the same answers. Many of those who work for various publications are aware of this and are content to use the same recycled lines, but when athletes do go off the script, there is plenty of value to be found.
Take the recent downward spiral the Leafs find themselves in. During a recent interview with Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Phil Kessel spoke rather candidly about the state of the team and his realization that the team does not have an answer for why they go into long slumps nor do they know how to get out of them. It was a rare moment of honesty from a pro athlete that caused media in Toronto to take a step back just to process what occurred: an athlete spoke truthfully for once and didn’t mask their answer through a thick layer of vagueness. It was refreshing to hear Kessel say what was on many Leafs fans’ minds, and the interview became a news story of its own.
In today’s culture, athletes are treated as celebrities and are regarded for their opinions. Their perspectives on things have become important even when they have little to do with their roles as athletes. They are often asked to comment on world events. It’s for this reason that media training comes in handy. Not only do their comments affect the athlete’s own reputation, but they affect the organization they belong to and their owners and sponsors.
Of course it can go awry, as in the case of Seattle Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch, whose unhappiness at being asked to speak on media day resulted in him simply not answering any of the questions he was asked. But for the most part, it lets the organization breathe easy knowing their athletes aren’t using their celebrity to go against the brand.
That includes those who play for varsity teams at U of T.
For post-game interviews or profiles, student athletes receive briefers from varsity staff before meeting with the media to get a sense of what points they should and shouldn’t touch on. “We get a simple reminder of what things should and shouldn’t be said, but I feel like it is mostly common sense on our part as adults and varsity athletes,” says varsity soccer player Claudia Piazza.
Piazza adds that interviews are not the main area of focus for media training at U of T—instead, new light is being shed on social media and how students should monitor their profiles.
With social media allowing athletes to connect directly with their fans, media trainers hope to ensure that everyone keeps a tight rein on their online persona.
As UTM student and varsity basketball player Manny Sahota says, U of T varsity sports is no different from any other pro sports organization in how it handles its athletes. “I have received training from the varsity staff on dealing with the media as well as how to use social media while being cognizant of our position as student athletes,” says Sahota.
The training takes place at the start of every school year and is mandatory for all varsity athletes. “It’s definitely helpful,” he says. “It gives you useful tips on how to better represent yourself and the university without having the media misconstrue your words or intended message.”
The tips Sahota and other athletes learn during the training include not answering any questions they don’t have an answer to, carrying themselves in a polite and respectful manner, and “being a reflection of the university and its values”.
“I think that dealing with media effectively and appropriately is vital, especially in our culture dominated by technology,” says Sahota. “The transfer of information through post-game interviews or tweets can become widespread so quickly that we really need to be vigilant with our words and actions.”
Nowadays athletes have difficulty monitoring online behaviour. Take Evander Kane of the Winnipeg Jets, a player whose off-ice “punk” antics landed him in disagreements with his teammates when he didn’t show up to last week’s game on time and was dressed inappropriately. The reason his case was taken seriously and not dismissed was the reputation Kane made for himself with his questionable posts on Instagram.
Kane posted multiple pictures online of himself holding stacks of money. These pictures were in reference to boxer Floyd “Money” Mayweather, who posted similar pictures, but since many who saw these pictures were unaware of the tribute he was paying, Kane was branded as a classless brat by hockey analysts across the board.
Varsity Blues manager of events and marketing Mary Beth Challoner says this new form of media training is extremely educational for students, whether or not they’re athletes, since it teaches them about the importance of being cautious of what you post online.
“The training is an important educational opportunity and teaching moment about those pitfalls, what to look out for and how this tool can negatively affect someone now and in the future,” she says.
According to Challoner, the training consists of “continual conversation” with varsity staff to monitor how athletes portray themselves.
Blues football player Anthony Naccarato says that doesn’t always happen. “We only have a meeting at the beginning of the year, but other than that I have full confidence everyone in this room knows the right things to say when asked a question about the team,” he says.
Challoner stresses that the training gives the Varsity Blues organization an opportunity to teach students about their role in the larger program and how their actions have a “trickle-down” effect on their team, coaches, the program, and even their family.