MVP Featured on Front Page of Chronicle of Higher Education

Off the Field, Athletes Learn Lessons in Spin

Her 6-foot-1 frame folded into a chair, the hoops phenom flashes a stricken glance at the camera and covers her face with her hands.

“I’m so nervous,” she says.

“Why are you nervous?” says the man behind the microphone. The blond ponytail lifts. “Because everybody’s looking at me when I’m talking.”

So begins an afternoon news conference in the media room of Drexel University’s athletics complex here: camera rolling, microphone switched on, and a watchful sports-information director hovering in the wings. Only this time, it was a news conference of two: Kevin Long, president of MVP Sports Media Training, and Gabriela Marginean, a sophomore standout in tennis and basketball from Romania who would clearly rather be running laps than taking questions from a reporter, even a fake one.

The scene has become increasingly common in athletics departments around the country. A sports-hungry public, a proliferation of media outlets, the advent of online networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, and, in some cases, the fallout from high-profile scandals involving college athletes, have prompted many an athletic director to consider formal instruction on how to handle media scrutiny.

Press attention is unavoidable in today’s collegiate sports landscape, no matter the size of the institution or the nature of the sport. And many athletic directors want to make sure their players are ready for it – even if the likelihood is slim that they will ever find themselves in the hot seat.

“Your athletes and your coaches could be at the forefront of what people may think of your institution,” says Eric Zillmer, the athletic director at Drexel who brought Mr. Long in for a day of training last month.

For the AD, the moment an athlete speaks into a microphone is both exhilarating and nerve-racking.

“You’ve got to let them speak. You’ve got to put them forward,” he says. “But you brace yourself for what they’re going to say.”

A Growing Industry

Consultants like Mr. Long have become frequent visitors to campuses, brought in to impart to college athletes the rudiments of how to answer, avoid, redirect, deflect, and defuse questions from reporters. A former Congressional press secretary who has been training college athletes for four years, Mr. Long is among a handful of such consultants who charge anywhere from $1,500 to more than $7,000 for training sessions of varying lengths, mostly – though not exclusively – at Division I institutions.

Mock interviews are designed to highlight athletes’ verbal gaffes and rattle them with tough questions – or, in Ms. Marginean’s case, simply teach them how to be calm and comfortable on camera.

Mr. Long varies his tactics with each interview. He grills athletes about the salacious material posted on their MySpace pages (“I wonder if you could tell me about some of those pictures? They looked pretty interesting”), tempts them to criticize their coaches’ decisions (“What do you think Coach could have done differently to change the outcome of those games?”), and invites them to walk headlong into controversy (“Don’t you think those guys should be suspended?”).

He is armed with video clips of well-known professional athletes committing media fouls, as well as a collection of simple instructions: Smile. Don’t chew gum or tobacco. Take off your hat. Sit up straight. Make eye contact. Don’t squirm in your seat. Strike “like” and “you know” from your on-air vocabulary.

Then come the loftier concepts: The news media are neither your friend nor your enemy. Don’t say or do anything that’s going to end up on YouTube. Be humble in victory and gracious in defeat. And so on.

“You are a public personality,” Mr. Long told a group of 75 or so athletes at Drexel several hours after Ms. Marginean’s interview. “Everything you say or do off-court, on-court, on your MySpace page – it’s all fair game for the media. A lot of you spend a lot of time practicing every day, but how many of you practice talking to reporters?”

Until recently, most Drexel athletes did not have much experience in front of the camera. But athletic fortunes are changing here, and media coverage of Drexel sports has picked up. A five-overtime women’s basketball game last February against Northeastern University – the longest women’s basketball game in NCAA history, in which Ms. Marginean scored 47 points, 27 of them in regulation – garnered headlines in newspapers far beyond Philadelphia. And the university is poised for more press this year: Drexel’s men’s basketball team narrowly missed a berth in the NCAA tournament last spring, and its men’s lacrosse team will begin its 2008 season ranked in the top 20.

Kathleen Hessert, president of Sports Media Challenge, in Charlotte, N.C., says media training is more than just educating individuals: It is “reputation management.”

“You could have a great team, but if people think you’re jerks, you’re not going to be able to leverage that success for your institution,” says Ms. Hessert, who, in addition to coaching professional and Olympic athletes, has also trained players at more than a dozen Division I-A institutions, including the University of Texas, the University of Maryland, and the University of Notre Dame. In recent years, some Division III departments have called on her as well.

If an athletics department wants to make the most of media attention, she says, it is only fair to give those in the spotlight – the athletes – tips on how to handle it. “You provide them with the best in everything else,” she says. “And not to equip them with these skills is unethical.”

Ms. Marginean, one of 15 Drexel athletes to get one-on-one training on this day, says her stressful 15 minutes on camera and the equally uncomfortable experience of watching the playback afterward have convinced her that talking to reporters might not be as terrifying as she originally thought.

“I’m usually really nervous when I talk in front of people,” she says. “Today I just realized that if I’m going to take the confidence that I have on the court in front of people, then I’m going to be fine.”

Another of Mr. Long’s victims during the mock interviews was Colin Ambler, a lacrosse player from Abington, Pa. The interview, he says later, helped him to listen for “the question behind the question.”

“Reporters kind of put you on the spot. They kind of try and put words in your mouth,” says Mr. Ambler, a sophomore who scored twice in the last 10 seconds of a game against the University of Virginia last season to upset the country’s top-ranked team. The training, he says, made him more aware of how to avoid letting reporters lead him into missteps.

While talking with this reporter, at least, Mr. Ambler appeared to remember Mr. Long’s instructions. Heeding the advice to speak in short sentences of 20 seconds or less, known in the business as a sound bite, Mr. Ambler wrapped up his comments with a confident closer. “It’s always nice to have publicity,” he says firmly, “but you’ve got to know how to take it.”