Vol. 49, No. 4 May 2012 .pdf version
John Akers: Entering uncertainty, we need each other
Joe Mitch: Basketball gala to feature USBWA awards
Lenox Rawlings: Bob Ryan honors us all

John Akers

Entering a period of uncertainty, we need each other

By JOHN AKERS / Basketball Times
USBWA President

As editor of the Tipoff, I've been eavesdropping on USBWA conference calls for nearly a decade now.

I've learned a lot that I'm hoping to take from our most recent presidents – the class of Lenox Rawlings, the confidence of Bryan Burwell, the determination of Steve Carp.

Now it's time to put the experience and the lessons to use.

Writers once worried about losing their places on press row of NCAA tournaments to the influence of CBS executives who preferred that our seats be filled by fans. We worry still, though now whether our own employers will continue to spend the money to send us to Final Fours.

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We fought for years for affordable wireless at these tournaments, only to be knocked offline at every tip-off by the invisible muscle of 10,000 cell phones. This tournament, writers were pleasantly surprised to find that every spot on press row was hardwired for Internet service, free of charge.

This Final Four, a number of us also were surprised to hear Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski, incoming chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee, say that the idea of allowing a pool reporter inside the tournament selection process is at least on the table.

I remember handing a similar proposal to former tournament director Bill Hancock about 10 years ago. Hancock cheerfully told me that the committee would reject my shot like weak stuff offered up against Emeka Okafor. The very idea of entering the room with Bobinski and the rest of the committee is a million light years from a time not so long ago when the NCAA treated even the most mundane tournament principles like trade secrets.

Reporters at the New Orleans Final Four even got to stay in a media hotel where – unlike in Houston – the carpet was unfrayed and the showers poured hot water.

As I write this, we are learning that the man primarily responsible for this period of glasnost has been replaced. While it has been common knowledge for months that Greg Shaheen was in danger of losing his job as the director of the NCAA tournament, his departure makes no more sense now than it did then. Shaheen has been our true friend. He arrived at a time when the state of NCAA media relations was at such a low, his initial offers of openness were met by some in our business with skepticism. Shaheen was laying the NCAA's trap, some warned; if he was, sadly, he was the only one who fell through it.

We now enter into a new period of uncertainty, with a new tournament director, Mark Lewis, of whom little is known.

Shaheen has at least left us with a starting point that is well ahead of where it was a decade ago and with what might be the most open-minded selection committee in 75 seasons of NCAA tournaments.

We believed Bobinski when he said the idea of allowing a reporter inside the selection process is open to discussion, understanding that the smart money might still be with those who say it will never happen. If the skeptics are right only because the NCAA can never bring itself to allow a fly on the wall on the 15th floor of Indianapolis' Westin Hotel, then so be it. If a reporter is never embedded with the committee during that week leading up to a Selection Sunday because this organization drops the ball, then shame on us.

Of course, there's more to the season – and to the issues the USBWA can and should pursue – than those that come up only during the tournament.

We have taken steps toward finding younger members by creating the Rising Star Award for the under-30 crowd. We will continue to reach out to the growing number of legitimate independent websites that are doing good work.

Access and information remain are our lifeblood. Yet we all know what has happened to media guides, and that the access to coaches and players being granted to beat writers at many schools is eroding. As an organization, we need to at least urge coaches and sports information directors to become more like Shaheen. There are still a lot of great SIDs out there, such as recent Katha Quinn Award winner Kenny Klein of Louisville, but there seem also to be a rising number of obstructionists. Ironically, the greatest access that some writers have to their teams now comes during an NCAA tournament that used to be so media unfriendly.

One SID told me that he believes that even the online media guide soon will go the way of the print media guide.

No one, including SIDs, should hope that Wikipedia becomes our best source of historical information. Better, SIDs could use our ever-improving technology to create virtual online media guides that update statistics and honors in player bios, include the latest box scores and do all the things that a printed guide can do, only better.

Another SID told me that athletic departments have discovered they can deliver their intended message via their own websites. I told him that's like going to a government website to get our political information. It is up to us to show our readers the difference and keep giving schools, coaches and SIDs a reason to pay attention to us.

If you're reading this, we're preaching to the choir. But you know somebody who should be a member, if only for the goody bag that comes with each membership – our indispensable directory, Hertz and Hilton discount cards, seven issues of Basketball Times and much more. Urge them to join. If you're uncomfortable doing that, pass their name along to me at johna19081@gmail.com.

We need them. They need what we have to offer. We need each other maybe now as much as ever.

Frank Burlison, a member of the USBWA's Hall of Fame, has joined the rotation of vice presidents, along with First Vice President Kirk Wessler of the Peoria Journal-Star and Second Vice President Dana O'Neil of espn.com. Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times replaces Burlison as the District X representative. Other new reps include District I's Matt Vautour of the Daily Hampshire Gazette and at-large Chris Dortch of the Blue Ribbon College Yearbook.

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