The Times Union: 'View From the Press Box'



By MARK SINGELAIS, Times Union


SCHENECTADY — Eric McDowell, the sports information director at Union College, knows about handling crises.

Twice McDowell found himself in the middle of stories that transcended athletics and became major national news.

McDowell served as the spokesman for the NBA's Golden State Warriors in 1997, when guard Latrell Sprewell choked head coach P.J. Carlesimo and was suspended for the remainder of the season.

A year earlier, McDowell was working in the media center at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta when a terrorist bombed adjacent Centennial Park, causing McDowell to work through the night to get information from the authorities to reporters.

McDowell said it's become a running joke among his peers in college athletics.

"They said, 'If anything crazy happens in the business, call Eric, or he's probably already there,'" McDowell said.

These days, however, he practices his profession far from the spotlight at Union College, an NCAA Division III school. He and an assistant publicize Union's 25 men's and women's varsity teams and more than 500 student-athletes.

Like many of his colleagues in sports information, McDowell is accustomed to working 60- and 70-hour weeks that include nights and weekends with little recognition and sometimes modest pay. A national survey estimated the median SID salary is $36,000 annually.

But Siena athletics director John D'Argenio, who worked as the school's SID from 1987-92, said the role's importance shouldn't be underestimated.

"Often, they're the spokesman and public face for your department,'' D'Argenio said. "They're the ones that help shape your message and deliver your message — even more so today than when I was doing it.''

Or as College of Saint Rose SID David Alexander put it, "In layman's terms, when you turn on ESPN and wonder how all these guys can spout off all of these facts, it's because of us feeding it to them.''

A profession that used to be known mainly for keeping statistics has expanded broadly with the explosion of the Internet.

When an SID isn't running the press box or scorer's table at a sporting event, he or she is putting together media guides and game programs for each sport, setting up interviews for players and coaches with the media or updating news and stats on the school's Web site.

"I think we're the most multitasking people in college athletics,'' said McDowell, who's also an assistant athletic director.

Colleges are using the Internet in more creative ways to promote their teams. The RPI athletic department this season launched its own Facebook page to provide schedule alerts along with a You Tube channel showing game highlights.

"We want to try to enhance spirit and pride in athletics, not just with current students, but anyone who's interested,'' RPI sports information director Kevin Beattie said.

In many cases, sports are a college or university's most visible platform, especially when a high-profile sport garners national attention.

Siena SID Jason Rich experienced as much when Siena's Division I men's basketball program upset Vanderbilt in the first round of last year's NCAA Tournament in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"Everyone was like, 'What a wild time. You must have gone and partied all (Friday) night,'' Rich said. "I can tell you that me and my assistant were in our hotel room working on game notes that had to be in Saturday morning at 10. The phone didn't stop ringing until 3 or 4 in the morning with different media outlets trying to find out what Siena was.''

Rich travels everywhere with men's basketball and pointed out his job has taken him to places such as Italy, where the Saints had an exhibition tour in August.

But there are other parts of the job that aren't as pleasant, such as the damage control that's required when a negative story breaks.

Rich has dealt with it during coaching changes and the messy transfer of guard Kojo Mensah to Duquesne two years ago. Brian DePasquale, his UAlbany counterpart, had to respond to questions when three UAlbany football players were arrested on rape charges two years ago. Although UAlbany was criticized by some for its handling of the incident, DePasquale said there were legal issues that limited what he could give out.

"I understand the media has a job to do,'' DePasquale said. "At the same time, though, our paycheck comes from the university, so we have to find that balance, which is not always going to be there. ... Some people don't want to hear this, but you're dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds and they deserve in some cases a little more privacy than pro athletes.''

DePasquale said SIDs have become "like a doctor on call'' because of the 24-hour, seven-day news cycle that's been created by Web sites and an increasing demand for information.

"I know (the media) might have to call me at 10:30 or 11 at night, and rightly so, I should be available to answer your question,'' he said.

Greater responsibility has turned up the pressure on SIDs, according to John Humenik, executive director of the College Sports Information Directors of America, which represents 2,300 public and media relations people from all levels of college athletics.

"They are clearly caught in the middle of this tug of war where coaches and athletic directors want to provide less and less (information) and at the same time, the public wants more,'' Humenik said.

He added that more people are leaving the profession because of the long hours and relatively low pay.

DePasquale, who is single, said he doesn't know how anyone in sports information can have a family.

So why do they do it? Not surprisingly, SIDs say they love sports and add they enjoy being part of a college atmosphere.

McDowell, the Union SID, was let go by the Warriors during a change in general managers in 1997 and decided professional sports weren't for him. He said the job security and benefits are better in college athletics. McDowell said the work is worth it when an athlete from a less-followed sport, such as women's tennis, thanks him for getting a story in the paper.

"When you have a passion for what you do, the hours mean nothing,'' said McDowell, who got married in August. "Because it's exciting to see that great win or have a parent write us and say, 'Thank you.' That keeps us going.''