Backstage at the Final Four

As media explodes, up close with the Twitter wars, massive egos, fancy buffets and flirty reporters at the big game

Topics: College Sports, Editor's Picks, Internet Culture, Media,

Backstage at the Final FourOhio State forward Jared Sullinger peeks through a curtain while teammates participate in interviews in New Orleans on March 29. (Credit: AP/Gerald Herbert)

It’s around 11 a.m. the day before the 2012 Final Four begins at the New Orleans Superdome, and fans of Ohio State, Kansas, Kentucky and Louisville are teeming along both sides of Canal Street, some with Mardi Gras beads in school colors. There’s friendly trash-talk as they duck in and out of shops glutted with Big Easy-themed Final Four T-shirts, hats, glassware. In the lobby of the Marriott, the media hotel, fans gawk at famous college coaches in track suits — and there goes CBS color announcer Bill Raftery, who could pass for any silver-haired businessman in a suit, except he’s Bill Raftery, famous for shouting “Strokin’ a little nylon!” (when the ball swishes through the net) and “The kiss!” (a successful bank-shot). Former Ohio State All-American Jim Jackson greets Buckeye fans, and as I ride up the escalator to get my media credential, down comes Missouri coach Frank Haith, the national coach of the year.

On the second floor, a conference area, I’m taken aback by a strange little man in a garish baseball cap covered in team logos, his disbelief over a credentialing snafu bordering on delirium. “How am I supposed to do my job without a credential?” he hand-chops to the NCAA media relations people behind the counter. He’s got round wire-frame glasses, a gray unkempt beard and denim shorts reaching past his knees. He works for ESPN, but reminds me of a wacky political convention attendee. I’m here to embed in the stratums of journalistic society mashed together at the Final Four, to discover how the decline of print and rise of digital can be particularly divisive within the hyper-competitive, male-dominated arena of sports media.

When a female staffer determines his credential has already been picked up, he asks, “Who would pick up my credential? How could the NCAA let this happen?” It’s possible somebody from ESPN picked up credentials for his entire crew, they tell him. By the time he’s persuaded to step aside, everyone is in a foul mood. The head staffer tells me I’m not on the parking pass list in a tone like, “Sorry, Charlie.” He’ll have to check with his superior who’s at the Superdome. Won’t have an answer for me ‘til tomorrow. We stare at each other a moment, him in a pretty cool NCAA golf shirt by Nike.



Aboard the media bus to the Superdome, everybody’s male save a young woman who appears just out of college. Or perhaps she’s in college and writing for a student paper. People sit sideways in their seats and chit-chat. The prevailing vibe: Excitement for the basketball vortex ahead — practices, press conferences, games of colossal stakes. They’re beat reporters and columnists with laptop satchels, photographers with unwieldy bags of equipment, and TV cameramen, their equipment loaded in the cargo holds beneath the bus. “Now that U of L made it to the Final Four,” somebody says sardonically, “Matt Jones has to admit Louisville exists.”

Matt Jones is the chief media villain at the Final Four, the creator of a fan website/blog devoted to the University of Kentucky. The misleadingly named Kentuckysportsradio.com gets up to 150,000 unique visitors per day, and, as Jones likes to brag, it looks like it was produced on an Atari. It’s worth a visit for non-Kentucky fans for an advertisement link to Boone’s Butcher Shop, where you’ll find the following grammar: “Boone’s offers custom processing of your beef, hog, lamb, goat, buffalo, wild game and a numerous amount of other animals.”

A cherubic 34-year-old with a Duke law degree, Jones and his KSR writers popularized the slogan “Louisville doesn’t exist.” But Jones is a smart, media-savvy guy, and it’s his relentless criticism of nationally esteemed basketball writers like Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports and Pete Thamel of the New York Times that has earned him outcast status in arena workrooms.

Not that Jones is trying to be one of the guys. At the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament at the YUM Center in Louisville, he tweeted out to his 46,000 followers that Forde was in the workroom “openly cheering” for teams playing on TV, a “yearly tradition.” This was in reference to the 2010 tournament, when Jones “called out” Forde for allegedly buying a round of drinks after Kentucky lost to West Virginia. Forde has been one of the more outspoken critics of Kentucky’s head coach, John Calipari, the only coach in history to have not one, but two Final Four appearances “vacated” by the NCAA for rules violations. On KSR, Jones and writers, under the guise of journalistic ombudsmen (but acting as what others might call fans with a press pass), regularly accuse Forde of having an agenda to attack Calipari. They claim he mentions Calipari’s checkered past whenever possible in his national articles, and that he yearns to “take down” Calipari through investigative reporting. Basically, they remind Kentucky’s fan base, known as the Big Blue Nation, to hate this writer. The most extreme segment of Kentucky’s fan base is notorious for sending hate mail and, in rare cases, issuing death threats. Forde lives in Louisville and has no geographical buffer. Here at the Final Four, they’ll share a workspace, representing two very different approaches to modern sports journalism.

As the bus navigates the narrow streets near the Superdome, we pass Tulane Medical School and somebody says he should’ve gone for a degree in medicine, not journalism. He’s referring to the decline of print, and people chuckle, grimly. Conversation then turns to Katrina and the displaced people who lived inside the Superdome under wretched conditions. The structure has since been repaired and repainted, a coppery hourglass shape on the river delta.

We’re dropped at a security entrance leading directly into the cement underworld, and everyone follows NCAA-hung placards around to the north end of the dome, where, on either side of the concourse, great reef-like workspaces begin to appear. A media workroom whose rows and rows of tables are equipped with power-strips; a media buffet/beverage area; an interview room with high stage for televised press conferences; a room with curtained booths for individual player interviews; a radio workroom; a photo workroom; a video/audio distribution room; an NCAA media relations office equipped like a Kinko’s; an NCAA operations office full of maps and computers and dudes with earphones who don’t want you in there; a CBS television studio; a CBS green room; a TNT green room; a CBS catering hall.

Going out to the brightly lit arena through a maw in the underworld, there’s the reassuring sound of bouncing balls. The University of Louisville has the court, the first practice of the day, followed by 30 minutes of interview time. The Final Four configuration of this cavernous space includes temporary stands bracketed over the permanent stands in the lower arena, so the seats extend down to the court less steeply, improving sightlines for basketball. The NCAA trucked the stands in, some 17,000 seats, and hung its octagonal scoreboard/video screen array relatively low over the court, to help give the place a college fieldhouse feel. All lit up, the array resembles the alien ship from “Close Encounters.” The maple basketball court, brand-new and buttressed 3 feet off the ground, has the look of a stage.

Media members are casually taking in practice, like ESPN color-man Jimmy Dykes, in an eye-popping zebra-print wind-pullover. Seating assignments, according to NCAA media coordinator David Worlock, depend on circulation and number of unique visitors per month; the bigger your outlet, the better your seat, though I’ll find out this rule doesn’t always apply. There are two rows of press on one side of the court, three on the other.

Eager to learn my assignment, I ask a man seated before a decrepit-looking laptop where I can find The List. He chuckles and tells me that in order to avoid getting complaints, the NCAA doesn’t release The List until tomorrow, about an hour before the first game. “It’s like a State Secret,” he says, removing his carpel tunnel brace.

This is Jerry Palm, who owns a degree in computer science and runs a website called collegeRPI.com. He’s the man who first brought the Rating Percentage Index to the public, in 1993. The RPI factors together a team’s strength of schedule (quality of opposing teams) and performance against those teams. It’s critical to the NCAA tournament because the selection committee uses it as a guide for team selection and seeding. If your favorite team didn’t make the tournament field, it might be because of this man’s area of expertise. Palm’s number-crunching website became so popular, he now crunches them for CBSsports.com. “It’s been a weird life,” he says.

“Why weird?” I ask, trying to discern if his laptop, though cruddy, is actually a supercomputer. His BlackBerry has a cracked screen.

“Who grows up wanting to be the RPI guy?” he laughs.

Palm ran collegeRPI.com for 18 years and found it impossible to get credentialed for the Final Four. In those early years, few websites existed — he was a vanguard user of the Internet, and a college basketball fan. “Now a good third of the people here are writing for some Internet version of a magazine or a newspaper or an Internet-only thing,” he tells me.

“Internet-only things” includes a range of places, from Yahoo Sports, widely considered the gold standard in sports journalism on the Web, to Jayhawkslant.com, part of the Rivals Network, which produces fan-friendly sites focused on individual teams and recruiting. (Rivals was purchased by Yahoo Sports in 2007; terms of the deal were never disclosed, but several sources reported sums up to around $100 million.)

Events like the Final Four are where the friction comes out – between print and online, between fan sites and sites that strive for more journalistic values, between writers who take shots at one another at a comfortable Twitter distance, then find themselves in the same workplace, on the same bus.

“A lot of the old-timers in print are frustrated by the lack of ethics shown by some places [on the Web],” Palm says.  “You follow a coaching search, for example. Guys are so worried about being first to the scoop (which coach is going to take which job), they don’t give a damn if they’re right anymore. I was following the rumors about [Purdue coach] Matt Painter last year, when he was connected to the Missouri opening. I’m a Purdue grad, so it was of great interest. Lots of websites were reporting it a done-deal, but he stayed at Purdue!

“I just think journalistic standards have become lower in sports. Some people don’t ever want to be wrong. My editors at CBSsports.com, they want to be first but they never want to be wrong. It’s the up-and-comers, the guys trying to make a name, who care more about being first than right.”

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The NCAA allows fans to attend practices the day before the semifinals, and there’s Louisville Cardinal red filling the lower arena seats. Everything looks a little too bright and sharply defined down here, like hi-def in real life. The court’s blond wood is lacquered and reflective, and the players have fluorescent red practice uniforms and orange laces in black shoes. It dawns on me that the ambient sound of the court — bouncing balls and squeaking high-tops — is preternaturally loud, and issuing from above. Later I’ll get confirmation: The court is mic’d for the college fieldhouse feel.

Back in the media workroom, serving myself a barbecue sandwich from the buffet, I spot Gregg Doyel, a columnist for CBSsports.com. A sinewy white guy in his early 40s, he at one time sported a mohawk, but has since shaved his head bald. I approach him at his laptop cautiously; he’s reputed to have boxing skills and a short temper. His writing style is best described as “angry.”

“Conversationally angry,” he says cordially.  “I’m blunt. I try to write like I talk. But I write like I talk mad at you. I have some occasional lose-my-temper moments that my family and friends laugh about, but I’m not that person. I’m a nice guy in real life. I’m that versatile.”

So you cultivate a tough-guy image? I ask.

“To be on the Internet in sports and have readers really like you — my average reader is a college kid or a little older — you need a hipness to you.” Soul patch at the lower lip, he’s wearing bright green Nikes with jeans and a T-shirt. “I don’t know if I’m hip or not, but I can tell you I try to hide how old I am. I have two kids, 16 and 14, and if my readers find out I’ve got older kids, they might tune me out.”

I’m a holding a recorder and wonder what he’s thinking. Then it occurs to me that he’s talking like he writes — blunt statements, outrageous honesty. “I see a lot of sweater vests in here,” I say, surveying the room. People tend to congregate around the buffet, or the table with tournament  materials, which include highly produced media guides from each of the four teams.

“That’s because the people reading those old-timers are my age or older and aren’t gonna switch to the new-fangled Internet for their sports,” says Doyel. “The older newspaper guys are in their own little world.  You see them hanging out in cliques.” The power dynamic between the cliques, however, has changed.

“Four or five years ago, we wanted their cred, but I think we’ve reached a point where we’re taken just as seriously. In both print and Web we’re seeing more mistakes than ever only because we’re more aware of them than ever. It used to be if the paper in Topeka had the wrong coach going to Kansas State, only the people in Topeka knew about it. Now we can all talk about the mistake on Twitter.”

You call each other out?

“Let’s just say our profession is more inclined to have arguments and dust-ups because our egos are so big.  We have some name recognition.  It doesn’t compare to the athletes we cover, but when we get in a room like this one here, and there’s nobody bigger than us around — like LeBron James is not walking though the door to remind us how low we are — we fool ourselves into thinking we’re stars.  You see the egos walk through press rooms, and it’s like, ‘Wow, you really do think you’re Walter Payton.’ But you’re just a writer for the New York Daily News and we all know who I’m talking about. You’re just a columnist!”

What about you all loving sports? That doesn’t help you get along?

“There are a lot of friends in here. People are gonna go out for drinks and to restaurants. But what we all have in common, besides sports, is we all want readers, and because that other guy is really good, he’s a threat to me. It leads to a lot of stupid Twitter wars. I’ve had my share and I’m not having any more.  What happens is, a guy says something bad about me and baits me into a Twitter war, and it’s not even real. He just wants to steal my followers.”

Just then, we’re interrupted by Matt Jones. He’s wearing an untucked button-down, and around his neck is a media credential, through his TV work for CN2, a local cable subsidiary of CBS. He greets Doyel by saying, “I didn’t even know you were comin’!”

It’s a press room joke, I think, one referencing Bill Simmons, who’s such a famous columnist for ESPN, the company allows him to stay home and watch sports in his living room. Or so the joke goes. “Why would I not be here?” asks Doyel. “I’m the man!”

For the first time in the workroom, I feel self-conscious about the company I’m keeping.  If Jones and Doyel are friends, is Doyel media villain No. 2? I like Doyel, and am keeping an open mind about Jones, but I want others to talk to me, like Pat Forde.

After Jones departs, I ask: How much can you criticize teams and coaches and not alienate your readers?  The fan sites are more popular than ever these days.

“I try not to worry about that, but it’s not easy. Fans want to be told what they believe is true. Sports and politics are the exact same, and they’re both depressing. The attitude is, Mitt Romney’s great because all Republicans are great and don’t tell me otherwise. If a Democrat already thinks Obama’s health plan is overreaching, then he or she can accept reading that. But if you take your criticism one step further, then a Democrat won’t listen because you’re obviously a Republican.”

Did it ever occur to you that when your readers are reading you, they should probably be doing something else? Like working?

“Never occurred to me,” he says, with a chuckle, “but I see what you mean. I’m writing for a guy who oughta be in a sales meeting. Which means he’s reading quickly and not paying close attention. Which explains why my hate mail is so stupid.”

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Louisville coach Rick Pitino is conducting a presser in the adjoining room, and the entire thing is being transcribed in real-time by a service called ASAP Sports. Back out on the court, the Kentucky team is hoisting three-pointers in a happy-go-lucky way — they’re the prohibitive favorite. I sidle up to Seth Davis, a CBS analyst and Sports Illustrated writer, greeting a group of school kids here to watch practice.  The son of Lanny Davis, often seen as a Fox News contributor and a former Bill Clinton advisor, he’s got swarthy good looks, a sharp gray suit with a lavender pocket square. He cheerfully agrees to a walk ‘n’ talk in the concourse.

“At the end of the day, this is fun,” he tells me. “You’re on the road, you’re at the Final Four. We cover scandals, there’s cheating, you want to be a serious journalist. But you’re not embedded with Marines in Afghanistan. You’re hanging out with sports people in different cities. Every year I get to see people like Mark Blaudschun [an old-timer for the Boston Globe]. But I’m kinda looking forward to Tuesday, when this is all over. I’m pretty fried already. Being in New Orleans doesn’t help.”

We’re discussing his journalism background — Davis started in print — when two teenage girls come around the corner. “Hey gorgeous, times two,” he intones flirtatiously, and the girls literally simper.  I assume they’re CBS interns, or perhaps daughters of a coach; they’re so young, it’s innocuous and charming. He returns to talking about the competitive nature of sports journalists.

“Guys want to break things first, and it’s anything. Is LeBron gonna play for Miami? In the blogosphere, they were handicapping who in the media would get that story first. I think it’s pretty juvenile. I’m lucky at SI. We don’t sell ourselves that way. We’re more about the writing and reporting. But I admire guys who do it [get the scoop], guys like Andy Katz [ESPN], Gary Parrish and Jeff Goodman [both of CBSsports.com. They take a lot of competitive pride in it.

“I was having a conversation about this with Chuck Todd [chief White House correspondent and political director of NBC News]. My sense is there’s more competition in sports to be first. Everybody’s trying to get noticed. One way to do that is get the scoop, another is being as loud and obnoxious and mean as you can. How incendiary can you be?”

“Just as in politics,” I say, wondering if he counts Doyel as incendiary.

“It’s a very true parallel.  You gotta go to the polarized extreme. I think people like to be provoked.  There’s a lot of trash-talking in sports, but in politics, I think there’s genuine demonizing. Hey there, hot lady …”

It’s CBS courtside reporter Lesley Visser, whose face has fewer wrinkles than her sideline reporters 30 years her junior. “Can I borrow him for a second?” she asks, giggly to see Davis.

Visser’s been a pioneer for women in sports journalism, the first female NFL analyst on TV, and the only sportscaster in history, male or female, to have worked on broadcast crews for all of the following: the Final Four, NBA Finals, World Series, Triple Crown, Olympics, Super Bowl, World Figure Skating Championships and U.S. Open. Yet as she and Davis chat, she keeps grabbing his arm and touching her hair, like a teenage girl.

“Tomorrow’s a long day,” Davis tells me before being whisked away in a golf cart, young and forever male. “Production meeting, rehearsal, the pre-game show, the games, the post-game show.  And I’m doing some corporate work for Subway. A little lettuce on the side,” he says, winking.

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Saturday morning at the Marriott brings another parking pass fiasco — the NCAA staffers are at a meeting until 11 a.m., and I’ve arrived at 9 a.m. to see if I’ve been added to the list. Other journalists need to pick up credentials. People are pissed. But it’s easy to calm down in the media hospitality room, known as “Club Hospi.” Popping a couple bite-size pain au chocolats from a nice selection of pastries, I overhear two guys saying they put on sport coats just to make sure they gained admittance to the room — they haven’t gotten their credentials yet. Then I meet Robert Allen, a heavyset man in jean shorts with tool pockets, and a utility vest. He’s disappointed by the buffet, because it lacks breakfast staples like eggs and bacon. Says he runs a satellite truck parked over at the dome. The “morning shot” got canceled, and he won’t work again until Sunday morning. Plans to watch TV in his room all day.

When I arrive at the Superdome, I think I’m getting an early start on interviews despite the parking-pass delay — except the workroom is completely empty.  The first game isn’t until 5 p.m., but I figured people would have work to do beforehand.

Maybe everyone’s hung over.  By 1:30, there are seven people.  On the tables, stacks of media guides have been left as place savers, with notes like, “New York Post, don’t even think about it.”

Later, I walk the circumference of the concourse, timing it on my watch (6:43 at a brisk pace). I pass a SWAT team with a bomb-sniffing dog. TV technicians setting up monitor/camera hutches in surprising places, like right outside the locker-room doors. Caterers carting around food. Open storage areas full of derelict machinery, old metal signs, ladders. Nooks and crannies where crime may have taken place in the days following Katrina.

Around 3 p.m., people begin to filter in and I approach Mark Blaudschun from the Boston Globe, the old-timer Seth Davis mentioned. His dark suit and Massachusetts accent give him the grizzled air of an old-school sports writer. In his 25th year at the paper, this is his 27th Final Four overall.

“The print media at the Final Four has shrunk considerably every year,” he says. “It’s become much more digital and TV oriented. When I first started, the Final Four area for print media was twice this size.  The NCAA says credential requests for print are way down.

“There’s a generational transition going on here. You have the new wave who are tweeting and blogging all the time. They’ll have the little camera going or they’ll talk into their phone. And then you have the old guys who have been around for 25 years, and we’re doing some of the new stuff, basically because we have to. But we still write stories.”

You tweet and blog?

“Yeah, but they don’t ask me to do video streaming.” A satisfied chuckle. “They’re like, OK we’ll leave him alone with that. I’m old-fashioned. The paper is more important than all that other stuff.”

Do print guys get along with Web writers?

“It’s almost like a caste. When you look around, the young guys are sitting together according to print and Internet. Or by geographical areas, like all the New York guys will sit together. It’s cliquey. It’s just natural.

“We’re dinosaurs,” he says of his print colleagues. “Even at the Globe. Boston.com is like watching the tide come in. We’re expected to do more and more instantaneous reporting with less accountability, which bothers me. Because in this age, you can blog something and if it’s wrong it disappears in an hour. In the old days, it was there forever. The standards are different. People are more interested in getting there first, and if they’re wrong, they go, ‘Oh well’ and fix it.

“Listen, I could start a rumor in this room and an hour later it’d be all over the country. ‘Sources close to the source say such and such.’ That’s mind-boggling to me.

“The Globe used to be a destination point.  Now we’re losing guys to ESPN and Yahoo for the job security.”

A little after 3 p.m., the media starts to arrive en masse. Most go directly to the buffet for baked ziti.  I approach one of the few female writers I’ve seen in the workroom, Marlen Garcia, from USA Today.  In dark slacks and a blouse, she has a warm smile, and sits near the buffet where people can easily stop by and say hello. She’s popular.

“So I’m sure you get asked this a lot,” I begin, “but what’s it like working in a male-dominated sports environment? Do you feel inundated by testosterone?”

She chuckles. “Among the coaches, sure. The athletes I find are pretty mellow. There are a lot of women in this business who came before me and laid the groundwork, and I’ll forever be grateful. The old-timers in this business, the men — they’re fabulous. They didn’t treat me any differently when I was a woman at 25 and naive, and now that I’m, uh hum, closer to 39, they still don’t treat me differently. They’re great guys with a lot of insight to pass on.”

And the younger guys?

“I have to say, they can be a little arrogant. I’ll find myself listening to a 20-something dot-commer with a great beat like Notre Dame football, and he’s complaining about how hard his life is. And you wanna say, ‘Look, punk, I started out covering high school sports, and helped put together a sports section for the Chicago Tribune, and would’ve killed for the Notre Dame beat.’

“Some dot.coms, I’ve noticed, get better seats than I do at events. I’ve not seen a fan site get a better seat.  But if I did, we’d have to box.”

What about journalistic credibility. Does print have more?

“It’s a crazy time,” she says. “Everybody’s trying to figure out how to make money. USA Today recently brought on a new president of USA Today Sports, which has been renamed Sports Media Group. We’re under new management completely. We have a new managing editor. Everything is geared more towards online, and we all have to reapply for our jobs. I’ve been at USA Today six years.”

Do you think management wants to look at everybody’s resumes and work history in terms of how suitable they are for online content?

“I think you hit it on the head. I like to write features. I went to Anthony Davis’ high school [a star Kentucky player] and wrote a really in-depth piece about his background. I’m going to find out if there’s a place for that under our new management. ESPN.com has a female reporter, Dana O’Neil, who does long-form human interest stories, so I’m thinking there’s an audience.

“I think I’ve been in a bit of denial about the print industry dying. I studied print journalism in college. Print! I came up at the Chicago Tribune! I said to my husband, ‘I feel like I’m grieving, going through the different stages.’ Denial, then bargaining — can I sell them on these long stories? I like to tell stories, but are they going to be of value? Then anger, oh the anger. Anger has been a big one, especially over the last couple weeks. So much anger. But I think I’m heading closer to acceptance.”

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Out in the concourse, technicians rush around with cables, pep bands head out to the floor with polished instruments, equipment mangers from UK and U of L race in and out of locker rooms. A cameraman is filming behind-the-scenes, floodlighting the cement hallway.  I see former Georgetown coach John Thompson, now a radio analyst for CBS, and former UNLV player Greg Anthony, a TV analyst.  Ushers are showing VIP guests the way out to the floor.

Before the tipoff, I sit down with Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports. Pre-game, it turns out, is a journalist’s least busy time. In his late 40s or early 50s, he has an athlete’s build and thick salt-and-pepper hair gelled into a kind of sculpted-over part.

“My schedule today is moderately complicated,” he says. “Greg Anthony and I did two videos for Yahoo on the court, and I’ll be writing the overview of both games tonight, spinning forward to the championship game.  I’ll be taking notes during both games, and tweeting like a madman. Then I’ll do three more videos on the court after the game, for use tomorrow and Monday.”

When will you write? I ask facetiously.

He chuckles. “That’s actually one reason I was happy to move to Yahoo [from ESPN]. I actually have less video ‘intrusion’ than at ESPN. Today’s an exception to that.”

Are there stories you couldn’t write at ESPN that you can write at Yahoo?

“There’s a greater embrace of investigative reporting at Yahoo. Yahoo is so unencumbered by ‘other stuff you gotta do,’ they say fine, just drop everything for two weeks and go do this [chase your story]. You don’t see that very much anymore.”

At ESPN, did you feel there were some conflicts of interest, journalistically speaking?

“There are inherent complications there when your company is paying hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcasting rights fees and you’re trying to cover those same entities.”

But now major websites like Yahoo and ESPN.com are considered traditional media.

“Yeah, but if you look at the seating chart for tonight, Yahoo’s on the third row, despite having the largest readership of anybody here.” He laughs. ” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is on the front row, and nothing against the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, it’s a very fine paper, but our circulation is probably 9 million times what theirs is!”

I’m in front of you too, I tell Forde. I guess that’s why they don’t release The List until right before the game.

“Quite honestly, it’s prestige and ego. ‘Well, I work at this place, so I should be seated better than this and I’m not. There’s a lot of testosterone in this room, for better or worse, because it’s a mostly male-driven enterprise here.”

Forde declined to talk about Jones, but would say there were many more layers of ‘society’ in the media workroom than when he first started covering Final Fours in 1991.

“Absolutely. Now you have guys with flip-cams and it’s like, ‘What happened to you, when did you become a videographer?’ Another big change is the influx of the “fan journalist.’  There are a lot of ‘fan boys’ in this room who didn’t used to be here. But they get credentials now. Some of them aren’t what those of us in traditional media would consider legitimate, but other people do.

“To me, they’re the same as politically biased radio playing to their base. A lot of fans, that’s all they want. Tell me how great my team is all the time, and how bad our rivals are. And anybody who says anything bad about my team is biased, or has an agenda. It’s funny, the attitude of Kentucky fans toward John Calipari is very different now from when he was at Memphis. And the attitude of Louisville fans toward Rick Pitino is very different from when he was at Kentucky.”

Around 4:40 p.m., the workroom starts emptying out. Ushers have us pour our drinks into cups that say Powerade, an NCAA sponsor. It feels like “showtime,” though we have absolutely nothing to do with the production. A camera boom swings overhead, and it’s an absolute cataclysm of sound, drums thundering, student sections shouting at the players as they go through warmups, cheerleaders spelling out team names. Seth Davis has taken up his position on the CBS broadcasting altar amid a palisade of fans in end-zone seating. My seat, even with one of the basketball stanchions, is behind the Kentucky bench.  Sitting in the stands directly behind me is Jay-Z, and just down from him, Ashley Judd. Jerry Palm is taking paparazzi pics with his phone — he got the cracked screen repaired today. Sitting to my left, Time.  To my right, the Kansas City Star.

The game is close, filled with dramatic moments, and sitting press-row is an exercise in restraint. It goes without saying it would be unprofessional to cheer, but I get the feeling I’m supposed to remain impassive even when a player does something athletically amazing. As if I’ve seen it all before. Complicating matters further, should the bench players stand up to cheer, we’re to remain seated, missing the run of play.

But we do have some perks, like personal monitors updating statistics, and Ethernet cables at each seat. The Time guy is checking his Facebook page, and the Kansas City Star looks to be liveblogging and tweeting. The guy on other side of the Time guy has already started writing an article. As best I can tell, he wrote a lead with blank spaces for team names.

During timeouts, media etiquette involves sitting stone-faced as cheerleaders do amazing athletic feats a few feet in front of you. Dance teamers do their thing too, their bodies rock-hard. It’s best to not look, and most of us try not to. During one timeout, I stand up to stretch my legs, and Jerry Palm comes over and says, “You’re not gonna believe this … I’m charging Jay-Z’s phone!” Apparently Jay-Z spotted a compatible charger on press-row, and requested juice.

At halftime, we head backstage to the workroom. People discuss the game, call home to their families, queue up for beverages. Some eat leftover ziti. I overhear two Sports Illustrated interns saying they saw a guy on press-row reading the National Geographic website.

Just before the second half begins, I’m approached by a guy in overflow seating (folding chairs behind press row, reserved for local TV, radio and interns). “Who’s that woman you were interviewing in the media room?” he asks. “She’s from USA Today, right?”

The pearly smile, the black three-button suit, the gregariousness: more sales rep than media. He wants to know Marlen Garcia’s name, and I give it to him, suspicious. His name is Clifford Early, and he works in radio. I’ll learn later that he’s one of the proprietors of a radio start-up that’s just barely getting off the ground.

Everybody assembles outside the victorious Kentucky locker room, waiting for the 10-minute cool-down period to expire, at which point, the doors will open and we’ll all flood inside, and a female reporter will get unintentionally shoved into a red-rope stanchion. The rush? Player interviews at their lockers, second-string guys and walk-ons who aren’t asked to the press room.

At the presser, Kentucky players are jazzed to advance to the championship game Monday night. They joke onstage, whispering funny asides behind cupped hands, and sometimes, when a media member asks a question, a player is caught off guard because he wasn’t paying attention. Hard to think them disrespectful, one game away from a championship, and they’re college kids, after all, three freshmen and two sophomores with a lone senior. It’s just weird, really weird, to see so many intelligent adults dependent on six distracted teenagers to do their job.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

Much of the media, both print and Web, will remain at the Superdome until late — the workroom is open ‘til around 4 a.m. At the final buzzer of the Kansas vs. Ohio State game, a Jayhawk victory, fans hurl down seat cushions, hundreds of Final Four-embossed cushions meant to be taken home as souvenirs. It’s a beautiful sight, these raining cushions, and as I’m packing up my laptop, I notice Clifford Early collecting as many off the floor as he can find. He asks if I want one, and I accept, glancing over both shoulders, because maybe it’s poor form to take home fan-jettisoned freebies?

About a half-hour later, in the Superdome parking garage, I run into Clifford again. He’s with a buddy, also dressed in a suit, and they’ve got a clear plastic trash bag full of the cushions. This bag is industrial-size, like the kind used to hold helium balloons, probably procured from the Superdome janitorial staff. A conservative guess would be 40 to 50 cushions. “You want another one?” asks Clifford. “We got plenty.”

“Are those gonna end up on eBay?” I ask, grinning.

“No, no,” says his buddy. He’s balding, heavyset, sweating in the balmy night air. “For friends and family members.” He gives me his card, which says “Dan the Man Leach” from Sports Edge Radio. Clifford’s info is on the flipside. As far as I can tell, they’re at the Final Four to network.

No games on Sunday, but Kansas and Kentucky come to the Superdome to practice and do interviews.  The latter include individual player “breakout” pressers inside curtained areas the size of a small room, with an NCAA moderator assigned to each, and TV cameras in the rear. It feels like being inside a photo booth for 30-40 people. It’s kosher to walk between booths, duck in and duck out. When I see Gregg Doyel, he’s concerned about something he might have said in our interview.

Kansas coach Bill Self and Kentucky’s Calipari get interviewed in the press room at length. Calipari is strangely upbeat and prickly at the same time. When a reporter trips on his words, perhaps out of nervousness, and then trips again, the coach says, “Come on, you’re stutterin’!” It’s meant as a joke, but considering one of his best players, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, has a true stuttering issue, it seems particularly insensitive. Of course coaches razz media all the time, none worse than former Indiana coach Bob Knight, widely considered a bully. On the whole, it’s a far more egotistical, juvenile sort of man, the multimillionaire coach, and the media must hang on his every word. Coaches who comport themselves with basic human decency are hailed “class acts.”

Muffalettas and jambalaya for lunch, our best yet.  After checking with his editor at the New York Times, and perhaps doing a background check on me, Pete Thamel has agreed to chat — but declines to talk about fan sites specifically. (“It doesn’t do me any good,” he says.) He’s 34 with a dark nefarious brow, or maybe it’s an inquisitive sleuth’s brow.

“The Times fancies itself a watchdog,” he says.  “There’s a lot of cheerleading media in college sports, and we certainly don’t partake in that.”

Do you have more freedom at the Times than you did at ESPN the Magazine (his previous employer)?

“There’s more of an appetite to dig in. ESPN the Magazine wasn’t banging down the doors to investigate. It’s a good magazine but also has a lot of puff pieces and glorification of athletes. They try to be hip and edgy, and we don’t try to be hip and edgy, obviously.”

Like they do with Forde, the KSR site accuses Thamel of having an anti-Calipari agenda. When Thamel investigated Kentucky recruit Enes Kanter for amateurism issues — the NCAA ultimately deemed him ineligible to play college ball — Jones thought his article showed questionable reporting practices. Things took a mean edge. When the Times ran a minor correction over a misattributed quote, KSR claimed a minor victory, and dubbed him “Thamel Toe.” An underground online T-shirt store produced “Neuter Thamel” shirts and “Investigate Pete Thamel’s report card” shirts, in reference to Thamel’s investigation into the fishy transcript of Kentucky player Eric Bledsoe.

A few tables away from Thamel, I sit down with Jones.  I tell him what I’m writing, and how surprised I am at the candor I’ve encountered.

He jokes, “If there’s one thing the media likes to talk about more than sports, it’s themselves.”

How does it feel? You’re pretty much the villain here.

“It’s like the JFK quote: ‘Dogs don’t bark at parked cars.’ A lot of them don’t even like that I’m here. I’m an outsider because I didn’t go to journalism school. They like to think of themselves as unbiased reporters, but I think that’s bogus. Everyone has biases.

“It’s the lawyer in me.  I like to face my critics.” He nods in the direction of Thamel. “There’s Pete Thamel from the New York Times. I’d like to talk to him, but he won’t talk to me. He acts like he doesn’t know who I am, but that’s a lie.”

During our interview, Jones and I will discuss his relationship with Forde, how things went so terribly wrong. As he talks, his face reddens from what I take to be embarrassment. He says he wants to patch things up with Forde, and seems to understand that stopping his “gotcha” tweets might be a good place to start. At the same time, he’s not going to stop being an outspoken lightning rod.

“These guys are failed athletes. Who do they hate most? The retired pro-athletes on TV getting paid millions of dollars [as commentators].”

Assuming you’re not getting paid millions, what do they hate about you?

“That I admit my bias. But I criticize Calipari all the time. I’m not a guy who sees things in black and white. Most of them have been doing this so long they’re jaded and not fans anymore. I’ve had a few guys say I’m my own boss [acknowledging his freedom] and that I don’t have to adhere to anyone else’s [journalistic] standards.

“The one thing I have to be careful about is when I report bad news. There was a quarterback who got arrested for marijuana possession, and because I was a lawyer at the time, I heard about it before anyone else. I had it verified to 98 percent, enough to post on the site, but on the 2 percent chance I was wrong, there was no incentive to rush to bad news.”

How does KSR do financially? I ask.

“In two years time we expect to be doing pretty well.” He names numbers he doesn’t want published, and I’m taken aback. The blog currently has two other paid employees, one fulltime, and Jones expects to hire more. “It’ll take some corporate sponsorships. And we need Calipari to stay at Kentucky. It helps when the team is good.”

Is the media ever going to accept you?

“Professors [at Kentucky universities and colleges] will invite me to speak to their classes. I’ve spoken to classes in leadership, sports marketing, business … but never journalism.”

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Championship Monday unfolds similar to semifinals Saturday, with media arriving at the Superdome later in the day. By 6:45 p.m., TV people are bustling around the concourse for the 8:20 tipoff, and everyone in the workroom looks a little extra primped for the final game of the season. Waiting to take the floor, I meet blogger Adam Zagoria from New York, who has longish flyway hair and a sport jacket of designer drape over an untucked button-down. Zag’s Blog is known ‘round the workroom for its college basketball recruiting scoops and coverage of the Knicks. And Dan Wolken, a recent print media evacuee who bypassed traditional websites for the Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s tablet newspaper venture.

As I head onto press row, I pass Clifford Early and Dan the Man Leach sitting overflow.  They’re taking phone pictures, and I say, “You guys look like you’re having a ball!”

“We are!”

Kentucky beats Kansas in a game never much in doubt, a fait accompli. Toward the end, an NCAA staffer comes around with an instruction sheet. We’re advised confetti will drop from the ceiling when the final buzzer sounds (in reality it will explode out of the Close Encounters video array, with several startling concussive bangs), and if we’re not working, we might want to close our laptops to protect our keyboards from the confetti. Among the rules for the trophy presentation and net cutting, interviews are to pause during the playing of the “One Shining Moment” video montage on the arena screens.

Later, out in the concourse, I spot Matt Jones talking on his cellphone, doing a post-game radio call-in show for fans back in Kentucky. He gives me a winning smile and a thumbs up, unabashedly ecstatic about Kentucky’s eighth national championship.

Then it’s back to the Marriott for an NCAA media dinner, scheduled to run until 3 a.m. Everyone is invited — print, mainstream Web, fan sites, blogs, tablet apps.  It’s a celebration, at segregated tables, of a job well done.

Brian Weinberg’s essays and short stories have appeared in n+1, Men’s Vogue, New Letters, Bellevue Review and other publications

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