A question for you ...

What should be the goal of post-game questions and when do they become something other than journalism?

Never start a story with a question. That was one of my first lessons as a newspaper reporter. An article is supposed to provide answers, the editor said. I’m about to break that rule in analyzing a post-game interview that was seasoned with a particularly spicy question, but first, here’s your opportunity to spread the word of a newsletter that is worth every penny I’m asking you to pay for it.

What’s the purpose of a question asked in a press conference? This isn’t a trick. I’m legitimately asking what you – the reader – think these questions should be trying to accomplish. Increasingly, the media members asking these questions don’t even agree.

Is a good question one that results in an insightful answer or is it one that provokes a notable reaction? Sometimes, they can be the same thing, but often times they are very, very different, which brings us to the media member from Buffalo, Jerry Sullivan, who asked the following question to Bills safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde after Monday’s loss to New England: “It has been more than 40 years since a team has won running that few times in a game, I mean passing that few times. Is that embarrassing?”

“What are we doing, bro?” Hyde asked, turning to look at a team employee.

“I mean what kind of question is that?” Poyer echoed.

“It’s a question,” Sullivan said. “The nation is going to be criticizing you, calling you soft. I’m asking because that’s my job.”

Did he do that job well? Because there are a decent number of people out there who liked the question. I know this because I heard from those kinds of people regularly after Seattle losses when I covered the Seahawks and attended press conferences. They’d ask for players and coaches to be held accountable. They wanted them to be made to answer for all of the shortcomings, real and perceived, that were on display. In my opinion, these weren’t fans who wanted explanation or insight, but rather they wanted someone to pay for the disappointment they felt as fans and if you weren’t willing to act as their surrogate in demanding answers, well, you were soft. Should a question be measured by the amount of discomfort it produces after a disappointing loss?

I came to conclude that these people were just immature, that they hadn’t learn how to accept disappointment like a grown-up and instead wanted to make sure that everyone else felt as miserable and angry as they did when things didn’t measure up to their expectations. If others didn’t say they felt that way? Well that was part of the whole problem.

But I’ve come to believe that there’s something else at work here, too. The desire for pointed, even antagonistic questions doesn’t just relate to the way fans feel, but how we consume sports. The press conference is essentially part of sports programming now. It’s not just the answers that get shown, but the questions, too. The reaction of the players and coaches is now very much a part of what gets replayed, discussed and dissected. The press conference has become an event that is covered in and of itself, which is a departure from its traditional function. I used to be something used to provide context and insight into a contest that either has happened or will happen, and while things occasionally happened there that would become news, the press conference was not something that was watched as an event to see what happened. That’s changing. It’s now an actual event, and viewed from this angle, Sullivan’s question can be seen as an attempt to generate content. And in that regard, it was incredibly effective, getting the players to bristle before discussing the defensive performance.

“I think we gave up seven points,” Poyer said. “Or 14.”

“Fourteen to 10, is that the final score?” Hyde asked, staring directly at Sullivan.

“We made stops when we had to,” Poyer said. “They had one big run. They’ve got good backs. They kept coming back to a couple runs. I don’t know how you want us to answer that question.”  

“That’s funny,” Hyde said. “We’ll remember that. I’ll remember that.”

As Hyde walked off the stage after the press conference, Hyde looked back out at Sullivan.

“This goes to disrespect,” he said. “It’s all about respect. I come here every single week and I answer your questions truthfully, honestly. I appreciate you guys. Don’t do that. Don’t do that.”

Sullivan interjected the final word: “In my day, players answered that kind of question.”

There are a lot of ways to describe the reporter’s approach. Some people might call it tough maybe unforgiving. I’d opt for unprofessional or antagonistic. No one, however, should confuse it with journalistic inquiry because from that perspective, a question should be judged by the quality of answer it produces. Sullivan’s question produced very little information as Poyer and Hyde revealed only how many points the defense surrendered, mentioned one big run, the quality of the opposing backs and the fact New England kept coming back to a few specific plays. It certainly didn’t lend anything in the way of proof to Sullivan’s belief that the defense was ineffective, that it should be embarrassed. If anything, it made me think that the defense played pretty well and the real problem was Buffalo’s offense didn’t do enough to put New England in the position where it ever had to consider throwing the ball with any regularity.

The question made a scene. It created content, which Sullivan was more than happy to preside over afterward.

I do not know Sullivan. If I ever met him in the 15 years I covered the Seahawks I do not recall it. I am as unfamiliar with his work and his reputation as he is with mine, but I find his summary of the media’s role to be incredibly problematic. First, it’s hard to take anyone’s holier-than-thou Journalism with a capital ‘J’ declarations seriously if they eat the free food offered by the teams being covered. Did Jerry pay for his dinner on Monday night at the stadium or any of the other games he attends?

Second, I’m not sure that I’d say Hyde is doing the media a favor by coming out, but he is fulfilling an job requirement that is laid out by his employer, and of all the different things reporters gripe about, the fact that media members complain about players not being available like they’re supposed to be is easily the most ludicrous. You are not – as a journalist – entitled to have people made available to answer your questions. You’re free to ask them of anyone you want. You’re not limited in what you can ask, but there is no provision in the Bill of Rights specifying that professional athletes are to come and answer journalistic inquiries on a regular basis. You know where that is written? Their employment contract. You know why that’s there? Because teams and leagues realized a long time ago that the cheapest advertising possible was to provide access to a bunch of white dudes (and they’re still almost always white dudes) to come in and talk to the players and then go write what was said, what they saw in the newspapers and magazines. This wasn’t because of any high-minded ideals of a free press. It was because those stories would interest people to the point that they would pay money first to come to the games, then to watch them on TV and now on all manner of products that constitute a pro sports franchise’s revenue stream.

So when Bart Hubbuch used to complain to the league about Marshawn Lynch not being available to answer his questions or a guy like Sullivan gripes about the players not being available to answer his questions, I always think how silly they are. They’re essentially complaining about another company’s enforcement of its HR policy. This is what snitches do. And Karens.

Sorry, got sidetracked there. Where were we? Oh yeah. The effectiveness of the question. I’ve asked what you – the reader – think is the purpose. I’ve explained that I think the quality of a question is best measured by the answer it produces and by that criteria this one failed pretty miserably. But let’s see what Sullivan thought of his question:

He thought the scene he instigated made his point. Do you agree?

Join the conversation

or to participate.