When Cincinnati Reds’ reliever Aroldis Chapman was traded to the Yankees Monday, a large focus of the coverage wasn’t on his 1.63 ERA and 1.146 WHIP, but rather the domestic abuse allegations that may see him serve a suspension. Similarly, when Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon spoke to the media Tuesday for the first time since his arrival on campus, many of the questions weren’t about his 749 rushing yards this season or 6.8 yards per carry average, but about a 2014 incident where he punched a female student in the face. These cases illustrate a rising issue for media; with more and more focus in the wider public on athletes’ problematic off-field behavior, especially when it comes to domestic violence and/or sexual assault allegations, how should media members balance their coverage of what athletes do on and off the field?
In both the Chapman and Mixon cases, the media response seems largely correct, but it’s worth noting that it’s substantially different from the historical approach. For many years, what athletes did off the field was deemed largely irrelevant, and sports media only discussed their play. The growing attention paid by the public in general (and by leagues and teams as a response) to violence against women (and especially when it’s by athletes) has led to these off-field stories gaining much more prominence, though, and they’re now a regular part of sports coverage. On the whole, that seems positive; these are important stories and societal issues, and ignoring players’ off-field actions while glorifying their on-field play is disingenuous. However, this change has been a relatively-rapid one in the last few years, and some media still haven’t changed much at all, preferring to stay focused on just the on-field performances. Other media members are interested in covering the off-field cases, but have to adjust, as this kind of situations are very different from the usual box scores. Teams and leagues have also had their own struggles with how to handle players’ off-field behavior, and in particular, how to talk about it. It’s worth discussing how important these off-field stories are and how they should best be approached.
With Mixon, one of the big issues at play is the school’s response. Their refusal to let Mixon talk to the media before this and their reported attempt to try and steer reporters to football-only questions (which may not have included the threat of removal; that’s being claimed as a miscommunication) shows a lack of understanding of the importance of these off-field stories. He doesn’t have to say anything, and they’re within their rights to advise him to decline comment or refer questions to a lawyer, but the questions are going to be asked. Delaying them this long doesn’t make the story go away; if anything, it only adds to it. The reporters handled this one well, persisting with different questions and different angles of attack even after Mixon’s refusal to say much.
With Chapman, it’s interesting that the Yankees have already admitted they will need to contend with his off-field issues and with a potential suspension. Of course, they’re facing a lot of heat, as women’s rights groups are already protesting in addition to critical media coverage. What’s notable with Chapman too is that a suspension hasn’t fully been determined yet, making this very much an on-field story; how much time he misses impacts the value of this deal. Even beyond that, though, normally on-field focused writers like Keith Law are discussing how this is “sending the wrong message.
From this corner, it’s positive to see media covering the off-field issues, and much of the coverage has been done very well. In fact, most of the problems with inexperience in these kind of arenas have come more from those who refuse to venture into them at all and stick to only on-field results; many of those media members who have addressed off-field issues have done so well. It’s not like these issues necessarily need to be mentioned every time Mixon or Chapman appears in a box score, either; both Mixon’s first media appearance and Chapman’s trade marked a natural opportunity to discuss them, not a forced one. These issues are serious, and societal; ignoring them may have worked for sports media in the past, but it doesn’t any more. We now live in a world where Aroldis Chapman’s off-field behavior has a significant impact on both his actual trade value and how trading for him is perceived, and that’s largely a good thing. Off-field issues may not have always been part of sports stories, but they definitely are now.