Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Under Further Review No. 6: Patrick Hruby

Writer Patrick Hruby has been a good friend of the SMTSU for some time now. Hruby spoke at the Sport for Social Change Conference in October 2013 on the topic of head trauma in football. On most days, you can find Hruby on the pages of Sports on Earth talking up the latest NCAA injustice, administrative blunder or #LOLEmmert moment. That's all among other topics, of course, but lately

Hruby stopped by to talk with us about a recent long-form story he wrote for Washingtonian Magazine, trusting your readers, writing about sensitive and complex topics and the NCAA. He asked in return that we join him in referring to NCAA president Mark Emmert by only his full name -- Indianapolis Cartel Leader Mark Emmert. Do it. Do it now.

On May 2...
Kevin Rossi: It's funny I actually talked to first-time Sports on Earth contributing writer Greg Hanlon last night about his Chad Curtis piece.
Patrick Hruby: Oh yea, that was a good piece.
KR: It was a very interesting story. He was very surprised he got that interview.
PH: The piece really came together with that interview. I don't even know if my editors were expecting him to get the interview.
KR: I read the Julie Kroll piece [that you wrote] when it came out, and that piece really struck me not only because of the emotion behind it, but there's also a message about the kind of stigma we put on alcoholism and how people don't see it as a disease, they see it as something they put on themselves. In writing that, how do you balance the emotion of the piece and try to get that big point across?
PH: I think what you try to do here, and it sounds kind of cliche, is you want to show when you tell. I think her story was so powerful if you're able to show it as much as possible and show who she was. That's the first part; you have to humanize the person or the issue or the problem. I could tell you there's a stigma with alcohol abuse. I could tell you that stigma is different and in many ways more powerful with women who abuse alcohol. And I could tell you here are some statistics that women are far less likely to seek treatment than men for abusing alcohol, because of physiological differences alcohol abuse hits women harder and faster in terms of bad health outcomes, everything it can do to negatively effect your health happens to women faster. There's a lot of factors. I can tell you all that, but it's kind of like the quote from, I think, Joseph Stalin of all people, 'A single death's a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.' One person's story is so much more powerful, which in Julie's case, the challenge for me as a writer was to try to get a sense of who she was as a person and try to communicate it to you. So when you sit down as a reader, you feel like this is a three-dimensional person, this is someone I could know, this is not just a headline 'Alcoholic Mom Wanders Off From Kid.' You're not just thinking of what she did; you're thinking of who she is and why she did it. I think any and all good journalism tries to do that and uses stories to bring attention to bigger issues. That's kind of a hallmark of what we try to do in the profession.
KR: That really struck me the more I thought about. The advice that I've gotten from other writers is to just let the facts tell the story, but also when you have the underlying message, it makes it tougher to balance because you have to sort of put yourself in the story a little bit more just to make sure people see it.
PH: The original draft of the story went back and forth between Julie's story and more of the bigger picture stuff about alcohol abuse that are unique to women. Some of the physiological stuff that I was talking about and also some of the cultural factors that contribute to women abusing alcohol in the first place. Whether it's increased pressure, changing cultural expectations, the alcohol industry has decided that women are a great market and have worked like crazy over the past 30 years. There's interesting history there, and I researched all that and talked to some experts. In the original draft, the story would ping pong back and forth between Julie and the bigger issue. They actually took those out of the final draft because they decided the story is much more powerful with much more showing and much less telling. You can see that there's still a paragraph here and there in Julie's story that takes a step back, but we decided not to emphasize that nearly as much. My editors asked me the same question you asked me in a way, and the answer is that the story is much more powerful, more visceral and is much more likely to grab a reader and tell them something. We trusted in our readers. We trusted them to read this story and realize that it isn't just about one person. And I think we were able to do that. It comes back to showing who Julie was, so that she comes off as three-dimensional and not just alcoholic. There's a whole person there. She loved dogs. She had a great relationship with her daughter. She was really close to her parents. Some of these little details, they really add up and if a reader can sit there and think to themselves 'this is like me' or 'this is like someone I know,' then you don't really have to pull back and tell them that Julie is the face of something bigger. They can figure that out on their own.
KR: That's interesting. As a writer, you sometimes get set on your story and this is how it gets written. Sometimes you forget how the reader will read it and if you should trust them.
PH: Sometimes editors decide that you did a good job bringing a person to life and they can figure it out without having to hit them over the head with why this should be relevant to them as well. They can figure it out.
KR: Now to shift to more of your everyday work. The NCAA kind of keeps you in business over there.
PH: It has been for a while. A lot is going on with them right now.
KR: I keep thinking if all these things that Pat thinks should happen come true, what's he going to write about anymore?
PH: There's plenty of things the write about. I'm not not going to write about it forever.
KR: I know we've touched on this a little bit over email, but when you spend so much time on such a specific topic and a topic that you feel strongly about the direction it should go, how do you battle the frustration as a writer that you still have to write about this and people still aren't getting it and it's still the same old responses from the opposing side?
PH: I try to think of new angles or different ways or topics that haven't been discussed yet. The more you learn about it, the more you start finding different people, different angles. The more you get into it the more there is to write about. So finding ways to talk about it isn't necessarily that hard. As the news progresses, I'll relate things that I've already written or talked about to the current news. The great thing about writing online is you don't always have to rewrite everything. If something you've already written is relevant, I can explain to readers here's why and I can block quote it or put it in a hyperlink. You can build on your own work, which is nice. You can't do that as much in a newspaper story.
KR: You have unlimited space to explain, and this stuff is complex, so it's good to have unlimited space to deal with that.
PH: Right, and I like that. I try not to simplify things too much when I write. Obviously, you have to at some level because some of these things would be unreadable. But I try to take advantage of the extra space that online provides you.
KR: And surrounding the whole NCAA issue, one thing that I wanted to ask you about is that we've kind of come to know the NCAA as this big PR machine--student-athlete is their term that they lean on--but I'm starting to feel like 'pay for play' is starting to become their overarching umbrella to all of this when in reality the Northwestern case isn't about 'pay for play,' it's about basic rights.
PH: I think it's really transparent. They look at polls. A lot of this is about how your frame things. The polls still show that the public is opposed to 'pay for play.' It's a smaller percentage than it used to be, but the public as a whole is still opposed. If you frame the issue that way... which by the way, that implies that it would be mandatory that you would have to pay. The people who are advocating pay for college athletes are not advocating for mandatory payment or a minimum wage or anything like that. Possibly that's what it could be depending on how you structure it. What people like me are advocating is the ability to be paid. The NCAA doesn't want to frame it that way. They don't want to frame it like they're putting on this kind of restriction. One word you'll never see the NCAA use is rights. If the issue is framed as rights, which I don't think is a frame because I think it actually is a matter of rights, it's a matter of basic economic rights, some due process rights and different ways that the NCAA amateur system tramples on athletes. The same rights that everybody else in society has. Taylor Branch, what made his piece so powerful is that he's a civil rights historian, and he saw that and put it in the proper context and made his piece so devastating. They don't have an answer to that. Their answer is to pretend it's about pay for play. Their answer is to say they can't afford this. Ironically enough, their answer is to make it a matter of bean counting. Using that as the premise is actually not what the issue is about. If they make it sound like it's about that, they have a better chance of holding the line. And they want it this way, they're not stupid at all.
KR: It's almost scary in that they're very smart in how they deal with it.
PH: It's an issue of rights, and it's an issue of power and control. That's really what it's about. It's not about we can afford this or we can't afford this. It's about being able to get together and set all of the terms of the dealing and have all of the power. That's why the Northwestern case is so scary to them because they won't have as much power. Look at what they're doing now in the power conferences with 'we're going to give more stuff to the athletes.' That's just about power. They're more than happy to cut a little larger piece of the economic pie off if they can keep all of the power. If they can decide unilaterally what's done with the money, that's more important to them than what's actually done with the money.
KR: I think my favorite response, and I think it's bad that I have a favorite response, from the opposition is 'well, if these athletes are getting paid, how will they like paying income tax.' And it's like wait, you pay income tax on all of your stuff, what, that doesn't even make any sense.
PH: It doesn't make sense for two reasons. There's a lot of conflation going on, so let's breakdown what people are actually saying when they say that. First, if we're talking simply about a stipend of some sort that comes as part of scholarship offer from a school, because for every student, every school can offer tuition, room, board, meals and they can offer you ten-grand on top of that if they want. They can actually do that. As Northwestern argues, these football scholarships are just academic aid. They're not athletic scholarships, just academic aid like anything else a school gives out to any other student. That's their argument. I think they're being disingenuous in part because they argue that football players aren't recruited to play football, which is basically lying to the federal government but that's what lawyers do. Schools will offer it sometimes, say if they have a really promising math prodigy. Here's your money, so come to Harvard instead of Yale. They'll offer promising graduate students, come work at this professors lab as a doctoral student and we're going to give a bigger stipend than you get elsewhere. Secondly, if this is income above the academic part that is taxable, so what? If I'm a football player and my scholarship is valued at 60-grand, which by the way the scholarship values are a little disingenuous also because that's essentially one part of the school paying another part of the school. And also the marginal cost of adding another student to almost any university is almost zero. There's some food and some books and some other small costs, but people act like every time a school gives out a scholarship, they're spending 60-grand. That's just not the case. To get back to the original point, say you have a Northwestern football player that negotiates some extra compensation above room, tuition, board, above the cost of attendance. Let's say there's an extra five, 10-grand there of just straight-up pocket money to which the IRS says, 'That's income, I'm going to tax you.' If Kain Colter gets $10,000 and has to pay $3,000 in taxes, Kain Colter will still have $7,000 in his pocket just like anybody else. Why wouldn't athletes like that? That's 7,000 compared to no-thousand. The argument doesn't make any sense on that front. There's no way the IRS is going to change what does now suddenly say now they're going to tax you for the value of the scholarship you're getting. They don't do that for other students. The IRS would have to follow the lead of NCAA administrators and be punitive about it, and that's never going to happen. People who argue that, to me, are saying that they've never even thought about it.

Thank you to Patrick Hruby for taking the time to speak with us on these topics. Although I'm sure you do already, read everything he writes, especially about the NCAA. It's worth it. And follow him on Twitter @patrick_hruby because every time Mark Emmert speaks to the media, you'll want to see Hruby's reaction.

Under Further Review:
No. 5 - Greg Hanlon

No. 4 - Josh Verlin
No. 3 - Kami Mattioli
No. 2 - Aaron Bracy
No. 1 - Adam Hermann


Kevin Rossi is a senior Drexel Sport Management major with minors in Communications and Business Administration. Since joining the SMTSU, Kevin has worked his way up the ladder to President. Currently, Kevin is serving as the Sports Information Assistant for Drexel Athletics and  intern at Comcast SportsNet in web production. Kevin has writing experience with, The Triangle, Temple University, and various outlets in a freelance capacity. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kevin_rossi.

Connect with Kevin Rossi on LinkedIn.

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