SBJ/October 17 - 23, 2005/SBJ In Depth

How media training pays for athletes

The role of “media coach” conjures up images of the memorable bus scene in the movie “Bull Durham” where Kevin Costner’s character teaches Tim Robbins’ how to speak in clichés and offer nothing remotely insightful or colorful to the press.

Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe faces the media. Athletes who communicate well can land more endorsement deals and expand their options for work after they retire from playing.
Those who make their living in the growing field acknowledge that part of their job is to keep athletes from fanning the flames of controversy and, at the very least, avoid the type of overly frank discussions that landed John Rocker in trouble via Sports Illustrated in 1999.

But much of so-called “media training” focuses not only on mock interviews and what to say in times of crisis, but on building effective communications skills that can generate lucrative endorsement deals and serve as a springboard to careers in broadcasting, business or coaching after the playing career has ended.

“Even some top athletes think they don’t need media training because they’ve done so many interviews,” said Kathleen Hessert, president of Charlotte-based Sports Media Challenge. “But it’s not just about proper posture and saying the right thing. It’s getting them to appreciate the communication value of their careers and what it can lead to post-career.”

The goal, media trainers say, is to show athletes that the skills will apply once their careers are over, no matter how much money they’ve banked as players. It’s not a tough sell for most athletes. Many aspire to become businessmen such as Magic Johnson and Roger Staubach, high-profile broadcasters such as Terry Bradshaw and Tim McCarver, prominent pitchmen such as George Foreman and Arnold Palmer, or even politicians such as Bill Bradley and Jim Bunning.

Then there’s Howie Long, known to non-sports fans as the star of commercials and action movies, not as a Hall of Fame defensive end and Fox football analyst.

“Few retired athletes are going to be content playing golf for 35 years,” said Steve Shenbaum, whose company, Bradenton, Fla.-based Game On, has worked with athletes such as Pete Sampras and Rick Fox. “The rush of calling plays and being the field general of a team must be satiated somewhere.”

Shenbaum points to Peyton Manning, who with a nine-figure contract need not worry about working in retirement. “But he’s already established himself as a charismatic personality that’s attractive to advertisers,” Shenbaum said. “It’s easy to see him having the same type of post-career success as John Elway or Dan Marino.”

It all starts, media trainers suggest, with how athletes handle their day-to-day media obligations. Well-spoken, accessible athletes project a positive image through the press that’s attractive to sponsors. Not only that, but the constant interviews enable them to polish their communications skills, which are vital for second careers in broadcasting and business.

“The time to develop those skills is now, not when you leave sports,” said Gary Hankins, president of Pygmalion Inc., a Los Angeles firm that has worked with athletes such as quarterback Michael Vick. “Being a good communicator will serve you as a player and also help create the perception that many advertisers want to see. That translates into more endorsements than you’d get on your accomplishments alone and better prepares you for the career after sports.”

As a Hall of Fame baseball player, Tony Gwynn was one of the more accessible, insightful interviews in the game. Not surprisingly, he’s a natural as an ESPN analyst. His communication skills also serve him well in dealing with players and media as San Diego State’s baseball coach.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Eddie Murray avoided the media as players, and while both have pursued coaching positions, neither has landed the type of high-profile gig that their playing careers would warrant. But Sterling Sharpe, who also shunned the media throughout his career, has thrived as an NFL studio analyst, most recently for the NFL Network.

“Usually, the media would have no interest in someone who would never talk to them,” Hessert says. “But a select few are going to be successful regardless.”

Sue Castorino, who as president of Chicago-based Speaking Specialists has worked with athletes at more than 100 universities, says younger athletes are more cognizant of how everything they do affects how they’re perceived. Between the Internet and camera-equipped cell phones, any public misstep can have lasting repercussions.

“Athletes are more public than ever,” Castorino said. “You have to exercise caution with everything you say and do publicly.”

Castorino worked with Ben Roethlisberger while he was still a student at Miami of Ohio. As a quarterback at a lower-profile school, Roethlisberger needed to communicate to NFL teams before the 2004 draft that he could thrive at the next level.

“Not only did he do that, but he’s already an effective corporate spokesman,” Castorino said. “He’s just starting his career, but already he’s putting himself in position to use these same skills long after he’s done playing.”

Pete Williams is a writer in Florida.

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