Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Reporting from off the gridiron

You won't normally catch the 19 Minutes staff saying a lot of positive things about football. (That'd be American football, for the plethora of international readers out there.) The game itself is all right, if a little too reminiscent of gladitorial spectactles. But the culture surrounding football is difficult for us to stomach - the overinflated hype every weekend, the 180 consecutive televised hours of the NFL draft, the unintelligible commericals for IBM network servers. And don't even get us started on the inherent contridictions of a sport that celebrates the "guy experience" (scantily-clad cheerleaders, large amounts of beer, attempts to maim your opponent), but which, at its core, features large muscular guys in extremely form-fitting nylon uniforms basically hugging and grabbing each other.

So we're not huge football fans here in the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters.

That said, Tuesday took us to Prescott, Arizona, where the Arizona Cardinals football team has recently begun its preseason training camp. [Interesting side note: 19 Minutes HQ has been located for the past 6 1/2 years on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, about a block from where the Cardinals have traditionally trained. We'd never done a story about the Cards -- until this year, when a virus outbreak caused the team to move its camp 100 miles away.]

Football training camps are actually pretty good places to do public radio stories. Gladitorial spectactle or not, the sounds of shoulder pads smacking into each other, coaches shouting, whistles blowing, and footballs being punted are all vivid and easily illustrative of the sport. And if you're especially lucky, such as was our experience at a New Orleans Saints camp in La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1995, you'll witness a wide receiver drop a pass and then use your microphone to express his frustration via a stream of epithets way too graphic for a family blog.

But the other, more surprising, element that makes football training camps good places to do feature stories is -- the players. They're actually good interviews. Well, sometimes they launch into the football version of the sports cliché primer Kevin Costner delivered in the baseball movie "Bull Durham" ("You gotta play 'em one game at a time..." etc.), but the point is, they talk to reporters. And often, they seem to treat them with some degree of respect - to the degree that they sometimes even think about their answers.

This is in contrast to many baseball players, who basically sit in front of their clubhouse lockers, glowering at any reporter who deigns to approach.

[Hockey players tend to be as approachable football players, but my Finnish is a bit rusty, which makes some of the interviews pretty brief. I'd share my impressions of interviewing basketball players, except that my arms aren't long enough to get the microphone anywhere near their mouths.]

But considering their occupation often involves attempting to submerge their opponents in the sod, it seems improbable that these guys would be happy to chat with reporters as they leave the field. Our theory here in 19 Minutesland is that after three hours of being slammed to the ground, yelled at by coaches with buzz haircuts, and sweating beyond the comprehension of normal humans, it's actually a pleasant change to chat with reporters, most of whom are unlikely to try to tackle them. (The exception being potty-mouthed TV host Jim Rome, who got into a much-ballyhooed donnybrook with quarterback Jim Everett. Regardless, at the aforementioned Saints training camp, Jim Everett granted me a very friendly interview. It was conducted with him standing about two inches from me, which accentuated the fact that he was at least a foot taller, and forced me to hold the microphone essentially straight above my head. People took pictures. Also, this was a great excuse to use the term 'much-ballyhooed donnybrook'.)

Anyway, football players, as they leave the field, tend to have a humble attitude when it comes to dealing with the media. That's in contrast to baseball players, who have just spent the previous couple of hours at spring training practicing bunts, shagging fly balls in the pleasant spring air, and joking with their teammates around the batting cage. Certainly, as we can all agree, a stressful situation that calls for being as rude to reporters as possible.

So Cardinals training camp was an altogether pleasant experience. Though one wonders what the interviews will be like during the season if the Cards play like they have for the past 20 years.

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