Dropping the Ball: Sports (Mis)information

Make no mistake — there is a sports information crisis brewing at Amherst College. The numbers tell you as much.

Since 2006, Amherst has employed no fewer than six different sports information directors, commonly known as SIDs. One after the next has left after a year or two for a similar position elsewhere; this includes Amherst’s most recent SID, Mike O’Brien, who departed Amherst for the same position at a peer school, Wesleyan University.

Compare this with the tenures of SIDs at every other institution in the NESCAC and it’s apparent that there seems to be a problem. Williams College’s sports information director has held that position for 27 years (and counting). Wesleyan’s long-time SID retired in December after 31 years. Tufts’ SID is in his 23rd year. Middlebury’s is in his 22nd, Trinity’s is in his 20th, Hamilton’s is in his 12th year, Bates’ is in his 10th, Bowdoin’s is in his 16th. The SID at Connecticut College is in his 14th year. Colby’s is in his 14th year as well. Meanwhile, Amherst has had six different sports information directors come and go over the course of the last decade.

Now compare Amherst’s SID tenures with those of coaches and athletics administrators at the college. Director of Athletics Don Faulstick has thrived at Amherst for two decades. Women’s lacrosse coach Christine Paradis is in her 21st year. Men’s basketball coach David Hixon graduated from Amherst in 1975 and never left. My great friend Jackie Bagwell took over as women’s tennis coach in 1991. On and on it goes. By the numbers, it’s clear: this is a problem not specific to athletics at Amherst, but specific to sports information at Amherst.

I was hired as Amherst’s first full-time sports information director in 2000 after two years in a similar capacity at the University of West Alabama. I was young and rising in the profession, nominated to serve on the board of directors for the College Sports Information Directors of America and appointed as co-chair of organization’s national technology committee.
It was relatively big news; Amherst was, after all, the last college in the NESCAC, and one of the last in the NCAA, to hire a full-time, professional sports information director. Prior to my arrival, the position was filled each year with a one-year Ives Washburn Fellow who had graduated from the college the previous spring. Washburn Fellows were thrown into the mix to learn the responsibilities of the position on the fly. By the time they gained proficiency, it was time for the next fellow to take over, and the cycle refreshed back to square one.

When I arrived at Amherst, the collective response in the NESCAC SID community was, “Oh, thank goodness.” SIDs rely on each other for so much, and at the time, you just didn’t know what you’d get when your teams traveled to Amherst. Done well, the job requires experience, expertise, an ironclad work ethic, people skills and skin as thick as a Goodyear tire. It’s a seven-days-a-week, 14-hours-a-day sprint-marathon combo that combines public relations, internal relations, media relations, feature writing, event management, statistics, web maintenance, graphic design, social media, film editing, photography, award nominations, conference and NCAA reporting, archivist duties, tournament hosting, endless amounts of correspondence, bus rides, technological proficiency, professional development and so much more. Nearly every evening requires multiple event coverage. When games, matches and meets finish, you find yourself in your office, writing a game summary to fire off to media outlets and your opponents’ SIDs and to post on your own athletics website, all while updating and uploading game and season statistics for internal, external and opponent reporting and making sure all social media profiles are on point. And keep in mind, there are 27 intercollegiate sports at Amherst.

Saturdays offer an especially long grind. When teams are on the road, you travel with them and work remotely, or you sit and wait for results to roll in so you can tend to postgame responsibilities. Sundays are spent again in the office catching up, often piecing together a full-fledged football game-day magazine that absolutely has to be written, designed, proofread and sent to the printer by 9 a.m. Monday morning so that it can be printed and in your hands later that week for the following weekend’s home game.

The consolation is, it’s sports and sports are fun. I remember the triple Jared Banner ’07 nailed against Trinity to win the 2005 NESCAC Baseball Championship, and the school-record 17:11.93 Carter Hamill ’05 ran as a first-year to win the 5k at the 2002 NCAA Indoor Track Championships. SIDs enter the profession for precisely this reason — they love sports and value athletics and athletes.

Hopefully, you grow to love the college as well. That was certainly the case for me. But herein lies part of the problem: the college doesn’t always love you back. Amherst’s SID is quarantined in an office in downtown Amherst, a full Uber ride away from the athletic department. In the office until midnight for the 15th day in a row? No one knows it, and therefore no one appreciates it. As the SID you are truly out of sight and out of mind. You are the closest thing to a full-on, real life, Dickensian-Bob Cratchit manifestation that the college has to offer.

The job can be excruciatingly and needlessly thankless. You spend your every waking hour serving others only to sift through an endless array of complaints from coaches, student-athletes, parents, alumni and random people about everything you can imagine. A coach’s spouse once said to me during a department social function, “Everyone knows the sports information director doesn’t do anything.” I wasn’t particularly offended, but it was revealing.

I lasted five years in the job until I could no longer physically, emotionally or mentally handle the grind, but I loved the college so much that I stayed for another year as the director of alumni and parent programs, and for two more after that as an assistant baseball coach under the legendary Bill Thurston. I still love the college, which is why I write this letter. Knowing it as I do, I know that everything at the college is up for critical discussion, and that nothing at Amherst is silent (except for the “h”). It’s my greatest hope that Amherst is glad someone cares enough to shed light on this conversation and that the college might value the notion of holding onto its next SID for more than a year or two. Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth.

1. Find office space for the SID near other members of the athletics department and have the position report to the athletic director rather than to the director of communications. No one gets into sports information because they want to work in communications. They enter the profession because they love sports and want to work in athletics.

2. Give the SID a seat at the table. Involve him or her in meetings and decisions. Don’t make the SID chase you. Include him or her in conversations. Make the SID feel involved and valued, not looked beyond and taken for granted.

3. Do away with the title sports information director. It’s a relic. It no longer does justice to the responsibilities associated with the position. There’s nothing worse than when someone calls you Sid as if it’s your first name. The SID, for all intents and purposes, is an assistant athletic director in charge of athletics communications. It should be recognized as such. This has become commonplace at other schools. Lend the position that dignity. Amherst at present has three assistant athletic directors. Make it a nice even number and bump it to four.

4. Gauge the pay scale for full-time sports information directors at Ivy League and comparable institutions, and make sure Amherst’s SID is compensated at the top of the scale.

5. If coaches are afforded on-campus housing benefits, the SID should be as well. No one, I mean no one, spends more time in the office and on campus than the sports information director, and there isn’t a close second. I hope this fact is revelatory to anyone who reads this letter.

6. Stave off SID burnout by rethinking staffing to the point where the position is no longer a seven-day, 100-hours-per-week, grind-you-up endeavor. No one’s family life is worth sacrificing for the greater glory of publicizing Amherst athletics. No SID will ever reflect back on life at Amherst and say, “Man, I wish I spent less time with my children.”

Having lasted five-plus years in the position, I remain not only the first, but also by far the longest tenured full-time professional sports information director in Amherst College’s long and storied history. This should not be the case. Recently, I telephoned Dick Quinn, who’s held down the sports information director position at Williams for nearly three decades.
I asked Dick, “Why have you stayed so long? Did you ever consider leaving?”

“Why would I ever leave the best job in the country?” he answered.

The sports information director provides perhaps the highest-profile lens through which prospective students, parents, alumni, donors, the media, peer schools and current students and faculty view the college. The expertise with which the SID plies his or her craft impacts everything from athletics recruiting to the health of the endowment, because nearly everything the SID produces is immediately out there for public consumption.

Is this is important? I think so. I think it matters. There’s no good reason why Williams and every other NESCAC school should be better at this than Amherst.