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By Sofia Scekic, Stanford University
On the same day that Stanford University essentially put an expiration date on the collegiate careers of hundreds of student-athletes, The Stanford Daily’s sports section began to undertake what was one of its most ambitious and challenging projects.
Stanford announced it was discontinuing 11 varsity sports following the 2020-2021 seasons. The Daily wanted to get to the real reason why the university cut sports that had brought 20 national championships and 27 Olympic medals to The Farm, and tell the stories of the 240 student-athletes and more than 4,000 alumni who had participated in those sports at Stanford.
As the main student news publication on campus, The Daily wanted to do in-depth reporting on the decision: why it was made; why donors, alumni, athletes and coaches were left in the dark until a last-minute Zoom call; and whether there was any hope of reinstatement.
Stanford takes great pride in its athletics department, as evidenced by 25 straight Director’s Cup awards, given annually by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics to the university with the most successful athletics program. So when the university made the decision to cut 11 out of 36 varsity sports — many of which, like artistic swimming and women’s lightweight rowing, are offered at very few other universities — it seemed antithetical to everything Stanford and its athletics department represented.
Additionally, media access suddenly became extremely limited. Previously, The Daily had never had a problem accessing the athletics department. We work with the department’s sports information directors, who coordinate interviews with athletes, coaches and staff. But following the July announcement, most of our emails went unanswered. When we probed for the reasons behind the cut, we received short replies quoting the original press release. When we asked for interviews with athletes and coaches, we received no response.
Following the breaking news brief when the announcement was first made, the sport’s section’s first pieces were features on each sport to tell its history at Stanford. We wanted interviews with current athletes, who were valuable for telling stories about the current state of each team. However, the sports information directors wouldn’t grant interviews or respond to comment requests, so we had a tough time getting in contact with current athletes.
One way we got around the athletics department’s unwillingness to work with us was by relying on alumni. Several of them reached out to us offering to be interviewed, and we heavily leaned on their connections for other interviews.
Building relationships with alumni made a difference in the long run, too. A group of alums formed 36 Sports Strong, an organization that raised money to ensure the reinstatement of all teams. That group became a valuable resource for us later when we reported updates on the attempted reinstatement process, including fundraising efforts and lawsuits.
Our efforts to build relationships deeper than the typical journalist-interviewee one, as well as our demonstrated commitment to continuously covering Stanford’s decision to cut 11 sports, allowed us to quickly get the information we needed when new developments arose.
Several of our writers also had relationships with some of the affected athletes, and many alumni connected us with current athletes to interview. While we normally would not bypass the sports information directors and go straight to athletes for interviews, we felt we had given the athletics department plenty of chances to help us get interviews. When our interview requests were repeatedly ignored, we felt that our duty to report on the situation fully meant we needed to seek athletes directly.
Pressure from all sides finally got to Stanford, as the university announced in May that they were reinstating all sports following sufficient fundraising from donors.
The university cited “changed circumstances including newly galvanized philanthropic interest” as one main reason for their decision, but it’s hard to tell if there were other reasons for the reinstatement. I believe our reporting helped, as did the reporting of national news organizations, fundraising, lawsuits brought against the university, and administrators realizing the decision had tarnished Stanford’s reputation.
I sensed that many current and former athletes appreciated The Daily’s commitment to making their voices heard. Most of the 11 sports were ones that rarely received much attention: Rowing and synchronized swimming were some of The Daily’s least-covered sports before summer 2020.
Several athletes I interviewed expressed their appreciation for our coverage. Countless others were grateful that we displayed the importance of their team by reporting on the people and history of sports at Stanford as opposed to just the accomplishments over one competitive season.
The lessons learned
Building relationships was very important for this project. If we hadn’t taken the time at the beginning to establish ourselves as journalists looking to tell a story, not just gather information for the purpose of making Stanford look bad, we wouldn’t have had any articles to write; no one would have wanted to take the time to talk to us.
Reporting on the developments also pushed our sports staff to learn new skills. During a typical week, The Daily’s sports coverage consists of previewing and recapping games, with some features and columns interspersed. We usually don’t have much breaking news — but for 10 months, we’d have to report quickly on developments like lawsuits.
Most of our sports journalists never had any experience writing the type of articles typically associated with news. We ended up relying on news writers in a couple cases to help with these articles. It’s worth building relationships internally, too, to make the sports section’s coverage stronger.
Our coverage and methods have not changed substantially after the work we did reporting on the formerly cut sports, but the sports section learned several main things from the process.
First, the challenges presented by the athletics department gave us a deep understanding of the importance of relationship-building both externally with alumni and internally with other sections at The Daily. Second, we learned how to cast a wide net for sources when our usual routes to sources were cut off.
Finally, ambitious projects like ours can have some impact on the ultimate outcome. While our reporting surely was not the sole reason for reinstatement, I believe that was one part of a larger effort to bring 36 sports back to Stanford.
Sofia Scekic is the sports editor at The Stanford Daily, Stanford’s student newspaper. Her favorite sports to cover are women’s basketball and football.
More on sports journalism
This issue is part of an ongoing series about sports journalism from The Lead. Read more recent issues:
- What 8 young sports journalists want students to know about starting their careers
- Getting out of your comfort zone: Tips for integrating sports into your newsroom
- Sports journalism is about more than just sports
One story worth reading
The COVID-19 pandemic has created big changes in sports, but one of the most significant for journalists is limited access to locker rooms, Tom Jones writes for Poynter. Postgame locker room access has largely been replaced by Zoom press conferences. “Talking to athletes on Zoom along with a dozen other reporters is entirely different than talking to an athlete one-on-one and in person,” he writes. Limiting locker room and interview access also lets teams select who is available for interviews and maintain more control over sports journalists’ work.
Opportunities and trainings
- Poynter’s internship database lists paid newsroom internships at publications around the country.
- Register for a series of free internship application prep sessions with the Ida B. Wells Society.
- High school students, enter The New York Times’ profile contest by Feb. 16.
- High school students, enter the JEA/SPJ essay contest by Feb. 19.
- Register for The Association of LGBTQ Journalists’ student conference, to be held virtually Feb. 25-26.
- Enter NPR’s Student Podcast Challenge by Feb. 28.
- High school juniors, apply for the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference by March 1.
- Register for The Nation’s free student journalism conference, to be held virtually March 4.
- High school seniors, consider applying for your state’s Journalist of the Year contest this spring. Deadlines vary by state.
- Register for the JEA/NSPA National High School Journalism Convention, to be held in Los Angeles April 7-9.
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