Analyzing the relationship between the press and the SID

Gavin Lang, Oklahoma State’s head of football communications, has come under fire for relaying a message that threatened journalists’ access to sources. Photo Illustration by Vanessa Johnson | The Signal

In September, Oklahoma State Cowboys football head coach Mike Gundy threatened that if any journalists covering his team asked his players about a senior’s decision to transfer, they would lose access to every player for the remainder of the season.

This threat by Gundy, which was relayed to the press by Oklahoma State sports information director (SID) Gavin Lang, put Lang on the frontline of the situation.

Scott Wright, Cowboys beat writer for Oklahoman, was one of the journalists in the midst of the situation.

“Gavin tries to be a good communicator with [the press] about things, and to have to do what he did was difficult for him,” Wright said. “Mike Gundy is in charge and [Gavin] had to carry out what was asked of him.”

Journalists at the Oklahoma State student newspaper, The O’Colly, published an article that detailed the events of the evening.

The students brought the incident to one of their journalism professors, and it made more national headlines when the professor took the issue to social media.

Lang asked The O’Colly reporters to leave the threat out of their detail of the event, a request the reporters did not meet. The Signal reached out to The O’Colly for comment but did not receive a response by press time.

For Lang and other media relations personnel, such as Georgia State’s media coordinator Will Owens, their actions and instructions are based on what is best for the program and how that program is perceived. Oftentimes that means breaching the trust of the reporters for the good of the program.

Owens said that while “maintaining a good relationship with the media” is a part of being an effective SID, the other half of that goal is fostering a working relationship with the head coach of the program.

“At the end of the day, the media aren’t your boss; they aren’t in charge of you,” Owens said. “While the head football coach at any school isn’t necessarily in charge of the SID, they have a lot of influence in who their SID is.

“That’s why I think it puts the [Oklahoma State] SID in a tough position, because he is thinking about his livelihood. And he’s [probably thinking,] ‘If I don’t do what coach Gundy asked me to do, I might be reassigned or I might not be here next year.’ He’s probably got a family he has to think about.”

Following the player interviews, Wright and Lang had a brief discussion. Scott told The Signal that in the discussion, Lang said he attempted to dissuade Gundy from carrying out the threat and that it “wasn’t the best idea” before delivering the message to reporters.

“[Lang’s] attitude to us was, he was trying to just play his role as the messenger, because in the end he’s got to do what Mike Gundy tells him to do,” Wright said. “That was the role he was playing.”

SIDs have a particularly delicate relationship with the media and the university they are tasked with curating an image for.

“Our job is a few main focuses: getting publicity for our sports and for our brand, making sure student-athletes are prepared to speak with media, and maintaining the outward image of the athletics department,” Owens said. “It’s crucial that the student-athletes are ready for anything.”

A job that possesses an element of what Owens himself describes as “controlled chaos” also requires the SID to be ready in any situation.

“[As an SID], you’ve got to be able to adapt last second,” Owens said. “You have to be able to think on your feet and make those last minute decisions.”

The reporters could feel that something was unusual about the usually routine Tuesday player availability when Lang came out to address the media and relayed Gundy’s threat. The approximately 15 reporters then had less than five minutes to make a decision on how they would respond to Gundy’s threat.

“It definitely seemed like [Lang] was uncomfortable with what he had to do,” Wright said. “That said, we tried to explain to him that news of this was going to come out and he said that he understood and he made it clear that it was Mike Gundy’s decision to issue this ultimatum.”

The press and other media are well aware of what their relationship with an SID means for their coverage of a team. This position is often one that requires the SID to toe the line between representing the university and giving the media what they want.

“I always try to establish trust,” Owens said. “Whenever I’m meeting a reporter, I want to make sure that we have an understanding of what’s expected from each of us. I expect a reporter to show up on [time for an interview]. By that same notion, I am going to do everything I can do to get my student-athlete there on time as well.”

As a journalist, the relationship with an SID can face some challenges as there are sometimes competing goals working at hand.

“A coach, and especially an SID, needs to understand that they typically need the media as much as the media needs them,” Sandra Malcolm, a veteran journalist and executive producer at Georgia Public Broadcasting, said. “Journalists provide coverage of their team to the fans which helps contribute to the awareness and interest in the team.

“In return, the journalist gets access to the team and the games and gets content for their media outlet,” Malcolm said. “There needs to be an understanding of that relationship and that it can sometimes be adversarial. You have to take the good with the bad and understand that not all stories are necessarily going to be positive about the team.”

The issue surrounding McCleskey’s sudden unhappiness with the team has been a source of tension for the football program that is battling through a tough season.

Owens has worked closely with coaches to help the navigate the questions coming from the press but has never threatened the media on the instruction of a head coach.

Gundy’s approach to attempting to mitigate the attention McCleskey’s decision would receive only added an extra level of intrigue to the saga, as alluded to by The O’colly reporters.

“It wasn’t a situation where we said, ‘everybody, we’re not going to ask questions, we don’t want to screw this up,’” Wright said. “By the time the interview session ended, I was personally curious whether anyone had, and based on reactions by other people I can tell no one had gone far enough to ask direct questions about Jalen McCleskeys decision to leave.”

The decision to not ask any questions about McCleskey’s transfer wasn’t a situation that was made by all 15 reporters in unison. The reporters in their respective groups decided not to go forward with questions on that topic, a decision the Oklahoma State professor who the broke the story disagreed with.

“A journalist has a right to ask any question they deem relevant and newsworthy as long as they are professional and respectful,” Malcolm said. “In this case, it seems a better option for the coach would be to instruct his players not to comment on the story rather than trying to control what the media can and can’t ask. Threatening [a] journalist is never a good strategy and one that could easily backfire if the journalist all decided not to cover the team in protest.”

The student journalists at Oklahoma State chose not to ask the players about McCleskey out of respect for their fellow journalists, but Wright said he would not have had an issue with a reporter breaking rank to ask a question.

“Had someone been brave enough to be the one to fall on the sword, I would not have had a problem with it,” Wright said. “In my situation as a beat writer, needing these athletes to be able to do my job, it was a scary decision for me to try to make. I don’t know if I could have done it in that situation without having more preparation ahead of time to contemplate the idea and the ramifications.”

In his subsequent article for The Oklahoman, Wright focused on how the Cowboys would replace McCleskey without mentioning anything Gundy said. Wright said that he would like to change the fact he didn’t address the issue in the article, but instead left it out all together.

“Ultimately the coach and the SID work for the University and the journalists can take their grievance to the administration in addition to potentially boycotting coverage of the team,” Malcolm said. “I don’t think remaining silent and not addressing the story is the best course of action but I understand where these young journalists felt pressured not only in the short term but in terms of their long-term careers as they perhaps seek employment from the University.”