Whether it’s information gathering, honest curiosity, leading queries or “gotcha questions,” college athletes are frequently asked to give answers.
Generally, reporters covering teams ask straight-forward, non-threatening questions, though at times they will fire off some doozies, and in times of turmoil, they are pointed and relevant, though often difficult to answer appropriately.
On occasion, a student-athlete makes the news for saying the wrong thing. It’s happened at Mississippi State before.
Basketball coach Rick Ray, however, expects his players to be composed, forthright and honest with the writers, radio announcers and TV reporters asking them questions.
For that reason, MSU, like several other schools, has intensive media training. It’s not a media relations guy going over tips with them, either.
A trio of guys at Guthrie/Mayes Public Relations drove down to Starkville from their office in Louisville, Ky., to train the Bulldogs on how to talk to the media.
Surprisingly, they didn’t teach Jalen Steele and Wendell Lewis how to keep secrets. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the three men spent the majority of their time teaching the players how to give longer answers, how to be honest and how to get their point across.
With one man working the camera, the other two are former journalists who covered everything from basketball and football to baseball and soccer as professionals. Now, with the knowledge of what reporters will do, they help athletes both amateur and pro, as well as coaches and even NASCAR drivers.
When half of MSU’s team walked in the media room of Humphrey Coliseum, they were welcomed and then immediately got started, with little warning. They were taken off one-by-one for mock interviews.
There were two options: a “TV” interview with a raised camera, a cameraperson and a reporter standing next to you with a microphone asking questions. The other was a full press conference room with chairs, bright lights, cameras, the whole nine yards.
In here, Dan Hartlage would move from chair-to-chair firing off questions, as he was only one man, though acting as several. Sophomore forward Roquez Johnson was first up.
Hartlage gave him a few softballs, then he came hard.
“All those guys transferred last year, there’s so much talent gone, now you get two guys kicked off the team. There’s no way you’ll be any good, right?”
“What did those guys do to get kicked off?”
“I assume the chemistry must be a problem?”
“Did you think about transferring when everyone else was leaving?”
“I hear one of your teammates got arrested for having a B.B. gun in his dorm. Dumb move by a freshman, huh? I mean, that’s pretty serious.”
Johnson – as well as every other member of the team on their turns – hung in strong, though seemed a bit surprised, answering with “No,” “I think people don’t respect us as much as they should,” “You’ll have to ask Coach Ray,” and other responses of a similar nature.
All are acceptable answers.
But none are good answers. Not to Hartlage, anyway.
After everyone has had a turn in their private interview, they watch them all together, with Hartlage offering critiques.
He’s so subtle with his teaching, the team hardly realizes how structured the advice he’s giving them is.
What it boils down to is pretty simple, Hartlage says.
“Most media sessions are informal, and they’re just a basic question and answer, a Q&A. We want to add an M to that. A message. When someone asks you a question, go ahead and give them an answer, but then share a message.”
The idea, Hartlage says, is for the student-athlete to dictate the conversation. Give the media something to write or talk about. Offer up a new and interesting topics, and they’ll probably go with it. If you only talk about the negatives, that’s all anyone has to quote you on.
For instance, a reporter may ask about how tough it is with so many players from last year gone. Answer the question, concede the fact there is much production to be replaced, but then offer up your feelings on Ray. If you believe it, let the room know how well he’s prepared you and your team. Explain that just because many of the names are not known doesn’t mean they’re not good at basketball.
Are you a freshman? All you know is this team. If you like the team (and it seems they all do), then talk about it. Tell them you honestly don’t know anything about last year’s drama. All you know is the group of guys you have good chemistry with.
Once the interview critiques are done, Hartlage asks each player to write out three messages they feel are important to them, 2-3 sentences each, in a notebook he has provided.
Session one is over.
The next day, session two begins.
MSU’s players went into their first mock interviews cold and blind.
Now, they are prepared.
“Use your messages,” Hartlage says, and the interviews begin anew.
Transfer point guard Trivante Bloodman, a Bronx, N.Y., native takes a turn with the TV setup.
“Trivante, you’re from New York. Did you not wanna play in the Big East? It’s the best conference in the country.”
“Now don’t ignore the SEC,” Bloodman says. “We’re a good conference here. And you know, me being from out-of-town, I’m really excited to be here. I’d have had too many distractions if I stayed at home. I love it here in Starkville, and let me tell you, the southern food is no joke. I love eating in Mississippi.”
“Well, you’re coming in and it looks like you’re gonna get a lot of playing time with the last point guard graduating and the other one getting hurt. Are you prepared for that?”
“What person doesn’t come in and want to play immediately?” Bloodman asked. “I’m really excited. Mostly I’m excited to play with this team. We just have really good chemistry, and we’re all good friends, and we love playing for Coach Ray.”
“So, Trivante, what’s going on with these guys getting kicked off the team? What happened?”
“You’ll have to ask Coach about that one,” Bloodman said. “I don’t really know. But I do know we still have really high expectations for ourselves. People out there are sleeping on us, but just because we’re young doesn’t mean we’re not good. We’re gonna be really good, a lot better than people think.”
The three messages Bloodman wrote down in his notebook?
- He’s from out of town and wanted to go somewhere else, plus he loves Starkville.
- He thinks his team has really good chemistry with each other.
- He thinks the expectations for MSU are way too low and the Bulldogs will be a good team which competes in the SEC.
A quote about Bloodman being spurned by the Big East turned into a story about the New Yorker enjoying his new life in Mississippi. A question of MSU’s depth ends up a description of team chemistry, and a query about lost talent turns into a bold statement of confidence for MSU.
Back in the main room, Bloodman and his teammates watch the interview.
“How much better was this than yesterday,” Hartlage asks.
Laughing and looking a little embarrassed from his teammates seeing his answers, Bloodman replies with, “Tons.”
Over the four hours combined in the two sessions, plenty more is discussed. The trio from Kentucky spent a significant amount of time on body language, delivery, confidence and personality.
“You can say positive things all you want. If you look grumpy and uninterested, no one will believe you.”
All the while, they’re reinforcing the Q&A&M.
Rick Ray’s players got the message.