Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Reporting on Athlete Infractions

In Basketball, William & Mary on November 17, 2013 at 5:14 pm

William and Mary basketball player Brandon Britt was suspended from the team Nov. 7 for violating team rules. The media’s handling of the details surrounding his suspension has been criticized by followers of Tribe athletics. CDH’s Ian Brickey weighs in on the suspension, the controversy and when sports becomes news.

On Nov. 7, William and Mary head men’s basketball coach Tony Shaver announced that senior guard Brandon Britt had been suspended from the team for violating team rules. Shaver’s announcement and the corresponding press release did not provide any reason for Britt’s suspension. Later that day, the Virginia Gazette linked the suspension to a drunk driving charge filed against Britt in Williamsburg-James City County General District Court Oct. 25.

Last week, Jared Foretek of Shadesof48.com wrote an article criticizing the media’s handling of Britt’s suspension and the release of details surrounding the drunk driving charge. I worked with Jared at William and Mary’s newspaper, The Flat Hat — he in sports and I in news. He’s a great sports writer, and I generally like his take on Tribe athletics. But on this issue, I think he’s 100 percent wrong.

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Britt’s suspension until I read the post on Shades of 48 (which you should definitely check out). For better or for worse, the Virginia Gazette isn’t one of my regular news sources. So I find it rather ironic that he’s criticizing the Gazette for publicizing Britt’s DWI — by publicizing Britt’s DWI. But that’s a side issue, really. Jared’s argument comes down to the personal indiscretions of a college athlete not being the media’s business, and therefore the reasons for Britt’s suspension should not have been released. According to Jared, the arrest of an average William and Mary student would not make it into the newspaper, nor would the suspension of an athlete in a non-revenue sport.

As a former news writer, I can say that Britt’s DWI — or the DWI of Jared’s hypothetical average student or non-revenue athlete — would absolutely make it into the newspaper. I say that because I’ve covered those stories. The Flat Hat regularly runs a “police beat,” listing the crimes reported in the Williamsburg area in the last week. Britt’s arrest occurred in the Williamsburg area, so the incident itself would have been reported, albeit without Britt’s name. But The Flat Hat has also run articles on individual incidents between students/residents and local law enforcement. Case in point, this article from 2009. And even if it doesn’t run in the news section, it’s clearly a sports story. Whether it’s in a game preview or a stand-alone article, the suspension of one of the team’s leading offensive players would appear somewhere in the sports section. Reporting on Britt’s DWI isn’t unfairly singling out an athlete — it’s news.

DWIs are serious matters, so I understand Jared’s discomfort in reporting on it. But I wonder, is there a hierarchy of crimes that fall into various categories of newsworthiness? If Britt had violated Williamsburg’s notorious three-person rule and been taken to court by the city, would that be newsworthy? Those stories run in the newspaper. If he’d skipped out on practice, gone to the Green Leafe and had the Laura Flippin special, would that be newsworthy? The Flat Hat covered that story as well. Ultimately, trying to decide which infractions merit reporting and which don’t is arbitrary.

This is not meant as an indictment of Britt. By all indications, he’s not only one of the College’s most gifted athletes, but also an upstanding member of the William and Mary community. He’s been named to the CAA All-Academic second team twice. His reputation at William and Mary is one of maturity and faith. He made a mistake by having a few drinks and getting behind the wheel of a car, and a momentary lapse in judgment should not come to define him. But this is where Jared and I diverge. For Jared, a student’s “dirty laundry” shouldn’t be aired in public simply because he’s good at a high profile sport. He didn’t ask to be in the public eye, he just wanted to play basketball. I think that misses the point. To quote Sterling Archer, “classic misdirection.” Britt is an amateur athlete. That’s correct. And to that, I say, “so what?” Being in the public eye wasn’t thrust upon Brandon Britt. He knew it when he signed his letter of intent. You can say he didn’t ask to be a role model, but this isn’t an issue of being a role model or not — it’s an issue of news coverage. The Virginia Gazette didn’t single out Brandon Britt for being an athlete. He shouldn’t get special dispensation for being one either.

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