Reporters aren’t the enemy when it comes to coverage of your Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia football-Kirby Smart goes on rant-Georgia Bulldogs scrimmage
Georgia coach Kirby Smart makes a point during his post-scrimmage briefing Saturday at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.

ATHENS — We’re not the enemy.

That’s just a friendly reminder from your longtime local sports correspondent. And when I say “we,” I’m referring to that mass of entities that now all get lumped into the one generalized description of “the media.”

It seems like no matter what we do, the media get criticized for being a bunch of meddlers just trying to get up into everybody’s business. And, of course, nobody wants us meddling in their business.

That is, until everybody else wants to know what is actually going on. Then people want to know, you know, the truth.

Like the Zamir White injury, for instance.

As the whole world knows now, Georgia’s heralded freshman running back tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee during Saturday’s scrimmage at Sanford Stadium. It was his second ACL tear in less than a year. It happened early in what UGA presented as a “closed scrimmage.”

But it wasn’t truly a closed scrimmage. Actually, there were probably about 1,500 people in the 92,000-seat stadium watching it. About 1,100 members of the Magill Society — an elite donor group that gives money to the football program — were there. They were joined by players’ parents, families and friends, a few NFL scouts, some former Georgia players and coaches, and other “friends of the program.”

Us media members were there for a few minutes, too. Seven to be exact. That’s how much observation time we were allotted for the scrimmage. Well, not really the scrimmage. Just the warm-up portion, where players are running through position drills and doing nothing of consequence. Georgia doesn’t want us to see any actual competitive 11-on-11 action because …

Well, I don’t why. I guess because they think we’ll report that they spent a long time working on a double-reverse pass that day or that they were rehearsing a new field-goal formation that they’re going to run a fake out of. Of course, we’d never report something like that.

Back in the day, when we used to watch every minute of every practice every day, we’d usually write that this guy looked good, or that guy did, or maybe that a fight broke out between so-and-so. But it was always — always! — taboo to report what teams were working on strategically. Everybody understood that.

Then, of course, there were always injuries.

The difference then was there wasn’t the instant outlet of social media. But even then, it was understood that we needed to talk to the head coach — or often, the head trainer — to get the full story on what was wrong with somebody we saw go down and how long they might be out.

Back to Saturday’s scrimmage, I’m not sure what the actual elapsed time was, but it couldn’t have been more than minutes before I first heard that Zamir White had hurt his knee and it “appears to be serious.” The first hint was shared by a colleague who saw it reported by one of his trusted commenters in the chatroom of a fan site.

That prompted me to check my Twitter feed. And, yep, there it was. People everywhere were asking about it, and some were tweeting to me directly for information. I then went into the DawgNation forum and, sure enough, there was somebody else saying they’d heard White got hurt and they wanted to know if it was as bad as it appears.

No sooner than I do that than my phone rings. It’s a person I know and trust who was there and had seen the whole thing happen. He said, yes, White had injured his “other knee,” that “it looks bad” and it’d been done while White was covering a punt.

I was tempted to go ahead and report it. But what if my friend had seen it wrong? What if it “looked bad” but actually wasn’t serious?

I decided to hold off. Smart has asked reporters before to wait until after practice to ask about any injuries. It’s a request — not a law, mind you — but I abided by it in this instance.

And so did everybody else on the beat. As far as I know, nobody in the press corps — aka, “the media” — reported it. We waited until after practice to ask Smart about it.

Of course, we were ripped for it when we did. By now I’m sure you’ve heard Smart’s rant. We posted it on our website for you to see.

“It’s really not fair that all you guys run out there and throw stuff out there and we don’t have a chance to talk to his parents,” Smart said. “We’ve talked about that in here before. If you ask me about it after practice, that’s fair. That’s not fair for that kid’s mom to find out about it from somebody talking and texting from someone in here.”

I tried to interject at this point that nobody in the press had reported anything, that only people who allegedly had seen it happen during the scrimmage were talking about it on social media. But Smart cut me off.

“Yeah it was all over; I got it Chip,” Smart said. “But you asked about it. So I’m sure you guys sent something out. Next.”

Nope, we didn’t send out anything. Next.

My DawgNation co-hort, Mike Griffith asked the next question.

“I’m new to the beat,” he said. “I don’t know the policy, but were there people in attendance?”

Smart: “Oh, yeah, absolutely there were people there and I’m sure they said something about it. That’s not a problem. The only problem is if it comes from in here and the question is, ‘is that normal for him to be on punt? I mean is that a fair question? Is it a fair question, I’m asking y’all? If you watch football it’s probably not a fair question.”

Well, yes, actually that is a fair question. We’re all well aware that Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift were on the punt coverage team for Georgia last season, and did quite well at it. But it does seem reasonable to ask if a running back who is still wearing a knee brace from his last ACL surgery should be covering punts in scrimmage eight months after going under the knife.

But that wasn’t even the point here. We were just trying to confirm the facts. Was Zamir White injured and, if so, to what extent?

Speaking of Georgia’s policies, this may come as a surprise to some, but we as sports reporters actually have some policies as well. The Football Writers Association of America — of which I’m a member — has a set of guidelines they ask the schools we cover to adhere to. Increasingly, those guidelines are ignored by almost every football program, especially those that reside in the SEC.

Let’s check in and see how Georgia’s doing these days on those FWAA recommended guidelines:

1. Players (eligible and playing in varsity games) who are requested should be available to media during Mondays and Tuesdays of game week (minimum).

HALF-CHECK. Players are available on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but not of reporters’ choosing. And freshmen are never available.

2. The defensive coordinator and offensive coordinator should be available to media once a week during the season (at a minimum) and once a month during the off-season (minimum).

NO. Georgia makes coordinators available once in the preseason, and then not again until postseason bowls.

3. Freshmen who play should be available to media.

NO. Like I said, Georgia’s policy is no freshmen are available for interviews. That was the case even for 14-game starting quarterback Jake Fromm last year. Until, that is, the SEC Championship Game. The conference demands an open locker room for interviews after the game, as do the organizers of the College Football Playoffs.

4. If former players and/or boosters are allowed into scrimmages or practices, the media should not be excluded from those same scrimmages or practices.

NO. And Georgia has several who cross lines here. Former coach Jim Donnan attends and then does a weekly podcast on Hall of Fame place-kicker Kevin Butler is employed by IMG Georgia to do the postgame radio show and a Sunday morning call-in show. Heck, he was on the coaching staff last year and did that.

5. Coaches should be available to media on their campuses at least once a week during the season for no less than 30 minutes. They also should be made available after practice each day for updates on the team. Weekly telephonic press conferences do not count toward these times.

HALF-CHECK. Smart is available every Monday in a press-conference environment but not the other days. He does more in the preseason.

6. A “no cheering in the press box” statement should be made in the press box before the beginning of each half of play. In addition, SID’s should make every attempt to keep the press box quiet and escort disruptive individuals to the exits.

CHECK. Georgia adheres to this one, as does every press box I’ve ever been in.

7. Requests for quotes from key players injured in a game should be granted by the home SID and his staff.

NO. Wasn’t aware of this one. I might ask for this this season. Pretty much every player after every game has to get treatment so otherwise they can use this excuse every time. It’s a rough sport, you know.

8. FWAA member(s) should help the each SID with requests for players to be interviewed after a game. Any player who has played (and is not injured) and is not made available for interviews will be so noted by FWAA observers. The FWAA recommends open locker rooms after games, but short of this, any player who plays in a game and is not injured, upon request, should be made available to the media.

HALF-CHECK. UGA always circulates player-request list in the press box in the fourth quarter of games. But, again, they bring only who they internally approve, and never a freshman.

Please don’t read into this that I am upset or even disgruntled. I’ve come to expect the treatment we get from these institutions. This is, after all, the hate-on-media age. I’ve learned to work around it and do my job to the best of my ability.

But the bottom line is, we’re not the problem. We’re not the ones out there blurting out rumor and innuendo. That’d be the guy posting in a chatroom under a pseudonym who claims to be “close to the program.” That’d be all those anonymous

Reporters aren’t the issue. We all want to be first, but it’s more important that we be right. Our names are above our stories and our reputations are on the line.

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