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The Best Defense Against An Ornery Subject Is A Good Question

With the right question, a reporter never has to assume an antagonistic stance or role.

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Screen cap from @timandfriends on Twitter

A question should be constructed to get the best answer possible.

This was the guideline I learned as a newspaper reporter, which makes sense. You don’t hear the questions in a story. You don’t usually read them. The questions operate off-stage, the unseen lever that pries out the good stuff from the subject.

The dynamic changes when the interview is conducted in public, though. I learned this first-hand when I transitioned from reporter to radio host in 2013. Suddenly, my questions were part of the content being consumed. This is increasingly becoming the reality for anyone covering pro sports now. Not only have the press conferences themselves become a part of actual sports programming, but those press conferences are increasingly the only access to professional athletes, given post-pandemic locker-room restrictions.

But any time I start to think that it’s important to consider how a question sounds to the audience, instead of focusing on the answer it gets from the subject, I will inevitably be reminded of where that thinking leads. This week, it was Jim Matheson, a veteran Canadian hockey reporter in Canada, confronting the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl over being non-cooperative. 

On the one hand, this kind of tension has existed for decades in pro sports. It’s inevitable, really, that the people paid to play the games will at times be at odds with the people paid to critique their performance. The difference now, as Ian Casselberry pointed out here at BSM yesterday, is that the tension is increasingly visible. 

Personally, I love these moments. Seeing someone get sensitive in public is catnip to my shallow sensibilities. But professionally, there is something to be learned here by going back to the question that started each impasse. Let’s start with Matheson.

“Lots of reasons for why the Oilers are playing the way they are, in terms of winning and losing,” Matheson said. “What do you think is the number one reason for the losses now? Is there one thing, in your own mind, that you’re saying, ‘We’ve got to get better at that’?”

It’s a bad question for two reasons, the first being that it is actually two questions. “Double-barreled” is the term used by John Sawatsky, a Canadian journalist, an absolute prince of a man, and an unrivaled expert in improving interview skills. In two days, John taught me more about good interview tactics than I’ve learned in 20 years of weekend workshops and workday brownbags. This won’t be the last time I mention him in my posts here at BSM.

The best piece of advice John offers is also the easiest to institute and provides the most immediate results: Ask one question. Just one. If you add a second question — either out of nervousness or because you try to phrase it better — it will confuse even a cooperative subject. If you have an uncooperative subject, it provides an out. An opportunity to answer the less difficult question and then stare right back at you to indicate it’s your turn.

That is exactly what happened to Matheson. Here was Draisaitl’s response: “Yeah, we have to get better at everything.”

Matheson asked if Draisaitl was willing to expand; Draisaitl was not, adding a sarcastic aside that Matheson could add to it because he knew everything. Jameson then asked Draisaitl why he was so “pissy.”

“Hmmmm,” Draisaitl said, raising his eyebrows as if he hadn’t heard.

“Why are you so pissy?”

“I’m not,” Draisaitl said. “I’m just answering your–” at which point he was cut off by Matheson.

“Yeah, you are,” Matheson said. “Every time I ask a question.”

Now, it’s likely that Draisaitl’s issue has nothing to do with the question Matheson asked. It’s possible that no question Matheson asked was going to get a good answer. But because that question was poorly constructed, it left Matheson cornered into the choice of accepting Draisaitl’s terrible answer to his poor question or creating a confrontation. He chose the latter, and while I don’t think it was wrong, per se, or crossed any lines, Matheson looked like the aggressor. And I suspect that will be the last piece of useful content he ever receives from Draisaitl.

This is the point where my column was initially going to end. Then I saw Ian’s post, which included an exchange between Gary Washburn, a reporter at the Boston Globe, and Celtics guard Dennis Schroder, who was every bit as uncooperative as Draisaitl. It provides the perfect example to see how a better question changed the nature of the impasse.

Let’s go to Washburn’s first question: “Dennis, in Philly, you had one point, but the game before in Indiana, you had 23. It seems like you’ve been up-and-down a little bit. Are you starting to feel comfortable? You had the COVID protocol, you had a lot of things happen this week, are you starting to feel a little bit of comfort in the offense?”

Washburn’s question wasn’t perfect. There are technically two queries, though I’d argue he really just restated his question about being comfortable. It was also a yes-no question, which doesn’t tend to be as powerful as a question that seeks an answer about how or why something has occurred. I’m nitpicking, though. The strength of this question was revealed when Schroeder bristled.

Schroeder: You with us or you with Philly?

Washburn: No, I’m just asking.

Schroeder: You with Boston? You work for us?

Washburn: I cover the Celtics. I’m just asking if you’re feeling any more comfortable over the last couple games.

Schroeder: It’s just a stupid question.

Washburn: My fault. Are you feeling any more comfortable? How did you feel like you played today?

Schroeder: Not good enough for you, huh?

Washburn: No. I’m asking about the bounce back.

Schroeder: We won, so that’s all that matters. I’m a team player, so end of the day if I’ve got 40 points or one point and win the game, I’m going to be happy with it. So end of the day, I’m a team player, trying to win some games. And in Philly, we didn’t come out right, we played right, and that’s it.

Washburn: Thank you.

At no point in that back-and-forth does Washburn have to do anything other than restate his question: Are you feeling more comfortable? Schroeder has the choice whether to answer it, and ultimately talks around the quesrion without addressing it.

Washburn never has to say he was dissatisfied with the answer or call out Schroeder for being uncooperative. He never has to assume an antagonistic stance or role. He’s courteous and even accepts responsibility for a question Schroeder doesn’t like. In the end, Schroeder’s defensiveness speaks for itself. And that is important given how many people are now watching not just the answers that athletes provide, but the hearing and in some cases seeing the questions that provoke them

When Ian wrote about these situations on Thursday, he concluded with a very poignant observation: “Tensions are now out in the open, when they might have previously happened in a corner, away from everyone’s attention. And when these dialogues become public, people feel the need to take sides with the reporter or the athlete. Which side you’re on as a fan likely depends on your perception of the media.”

He’s absolutely right, but I would provide one addition to that. A well-constructed question is your best defense against not only an ornery subject, but also those audience members predisposed to blaming you for antagonizing the athlete. 

BSM Writers

Mike Tirico Has ‘Never Pretended to Be Friends’ With Athletes

“I like having a healthy relationship where if I need something, I can ask whether it’s for on-air or for background and build trust.”

Ricky Keeler

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Mike Tirico has been covering sports on network television for 32 years. Over those 3+ decades, he has made it a point to not be so close with the athletes he covers in whichever sport he is broadcasting.

Tirico was a guest on the most recent episode of the GOLF’s Subpar podcast with Colt Knost and Drew Stoltz. While Tirico knows he is not doing extensive journalism work, he wants to make sure that he can be able to ask the hard questions if he has to any athlete.

“I never pretend to be friends with the athletes I cover. I like having a healthy relationship where if I need something, I can ask whether it’s for on-air or for background and build trust. I’m not in a position where I’m working for Outside the Lines at my old place, ESPN. It’s not a knock. It’s just you’re not in a position where you have to do these journalistic-type interviews all the time, but there are times you have to ask hard questions. I always try to keep a little bit of a buffer or a distance.”

The context of that question came when Tirico was asked about how good of a relationship he has with Tiger Woods.

“It’s good….If I reach out, he will usually get back to me. He’s been really good and really nice along the way.”

As for broadcasting sports in this day and age of social media, Tirico believes that it can make a broadcaster better whether or not the complaint from someone on Twitter is real or not.

“It makes us better because you know that people are going to catch you. If something is artificial or not, real or not, embraced or not, it forces you to be better at what you do.”

For that same reason, Tirico thinks that LIV Golf is going to make the PGA Tour have to be better going forward because now they have another tour to go up against.

“I think LIV Golf, and we all have our own opinions on it, is going to force the PGA Tour to be better. Competition is good. Checks and balances are really good.”

Even though Tirico doesn’t feel nervous about many broadcasts anymore, there was one event in the last decade where the nerves kicked in when he was hosting his first Olympics at NBC.

“The only time in the last 10 years that I’ve been nervous was coming on for the first time hosting the Olympics because Bob Costas has done that since most of us have been alive and most people had never seen anyone but Bob Costas host the Olympics in primetime…2 minutes before, I’m like ‘should I be this? Should I have fun?’ and then the minute before, I cracked a joke in the studio.”

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BSM Writers

Kyle Brandt’s Rant a Reminder to Consider the Messenger

This doesn’t mean Brandt is wrong or even that he is being told to echo the NFL’s position, it’s to note that he took a very powerful stance on a very powerful platform and they both matter.

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Kyle Brandt

This week, a massive announcement was made in the National Football League regarding the immediate future of Deshaun Watson. Judge Sue L. Robinson recommended a six -game suspension with no additional monetary fine for the quarterback. While the NFL mulls what it will say further, most others didn’t, including a really prominent personality: Kyle Brandt.

Brandt, a co-host on Good Morning Football, reacted like a lot of people did upon hearing the decision: forcefully. On Monday, Brandt denounced the decision to limit Watson’s suspension to six games, saying in part, “…I look at six and I find it very light. I hope it doesn’t stay that way personally. I think that Deshaun Watson leveraged his status as an NFL player against women. In my opinion. And I think it happened more than one time and I think it was was in closed doors in small rooms against women who were probably intimidated. And it pisses me off to even talk about it. And frankly it pisses me off to see the number six. And I don’t think it’s going to stay that way and I hope it doesn’t.”

Those words resonated. Once they were said, the clip was grabbed from the show and then distributed on Brandt’s Twitter account which reaches 333,000+ followers and on his Instagram which speaks to 96,000+ followers. That video has been seen over two million times. Viral, they say. Here it is if you did happen to miss it. Passionate stuff from Brandt.

If you believe in the message, it’s an easy to like, retweet or share idea. It’s not a hot take, frankly, because there is a large section of those that have been following this story that agree. Deshaun Watson is settling cases because people believe he did something bad. Something bad enough that judge did seem fit to point it out and recommend what is generally speaking, a strong suspension. The only problem here is the platform hosting the message.

This is not a Kyle Brandt-bashing piece. He isn’t the platform. If anything, he’s the vessel of this message he wants out. He also, very likely, feels exactly the way he said he did in the above tweeted video. In fact, the next day, Tuesday, Brandt doubled down on his opinion. The newer video was viewed over 400,000 times. You can check it out right below these words.

The distinction needs to be noted that the message Brandt is delivering, is the NFL’s message. It is what Roger Goodell wants to be the prevailing wisdom regarding how we feel about the current state of Watson’s suspension. That message is being amplified by a very popular co-host, on a very popular morning television show that is seen by a lot of people and that is owned by the National Football League.

Again, I am here waving to you wildly to say that I have no reason to believe that Brandt is being told this particular messaging needs to be voiced. But, I do know that the NFL has until Thursday to appeal the decision. Three days is a lot of time to gather data on whether or not the public might support you appealing for more games, something that the league most certainly will look into judging by their statement released shortly after the ruling.

I also know that the NFL was seeking a much longer suspension as well as a hefty fine to be issued to Watson. The NFL has taken a lot of hits for how it has handled players violating league rules and the player conduct policy. No matter which case you look at, comparing it to the one previous or the one right after is an exercise is madness. The one common theme seems to be is that when the NFL feels like it is delving out punishment, it wants to be severe, no matter the consistency. Remember, Tom Brady was a short ‘yes’ answer away from appealing his case to the Supreme Court. The NFL isn’t particularly interested in just letting things go.

It is well within the realm of possibility that the NFL is getting what it rarely gets: an overwhelming opinion that actually sides with it in terms of punishment. For the majority of the modern cases I can remember, more fans than not disagreed with the NFL’s stance on a case. This time, they might have the court of public opinion on their side. I hear far more ‘kick him outs’ in reference to Watson than I do ‘no suspensions’.

We might have the perfect storm for the NFL in terms of support and Kyle Brandt’s message lines up exactly with the leagues desires, no matter how they may have gotten there. Both want more punishment for the Cleveland quarterback. Brandt can hope, the NFL can fight.

This doesn’t mean Brandt is wrong or even that he is being told to echo the NFL’s position, it’s to note that he took a very powerful stance on a very powerful platform and they both matter.

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BSM Writers

Producers Podcast Episode 6: Jackson Safon, The Volume

Brady Farkas

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Jackson Safon has produced for a number of high profile digital networks. Now, as a freelancer, The Volume has put its faith in him to get the most out of Draymond Green, and CC Sabathia and Ryan Ruocco have trusted him to make R2C2 the best it can be.

iTunes: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-producers-podcast/id1630978079

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/2XBTp3PnrBvGv2n4Y19tCE?si=c84eee71512e49a5

iHeart: https://www.iheart.com/podcast/269-the-producers-podcast-98564690/

Google: https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9mZWVkcy5ibHVicnJ5LmNvbS9mZWVkcy9wcm9kdWNlcnNwb2QueG1s?sa=X&ved=0CAMQ4aUDahcKEwiQpvak__P4AhUAAAAAHQAAAAAQRw

Amazon: https://music.amazon.com/podcasts/241160ba-ad26-4297-a37a-107dfb10b462/the-producers-podcast 

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