Interview: Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell has been covering the sports world for 24 years, the past 12 as a columnist for New York Newsday. He spoke to PRWeek about sports PR pros and his dislike of "new-school" sports journalists.

Shaun Powell has been covering the sports world for 24 years, the past 12 as a columnist for New York Newsday. He spoke to PRWeek about sports PR pros and his dislike of "new-school" sports journalists.

PRWeek: What's the best thing about being a sportswriter?
Shaun Powell:
Every day is different. It's not a typical 9-to-5 job, because something new happens everyday. It keeps me alert, alive and refreshed. You're always wondering what the next surprise is going to be. And sports are fun.

PRWeek: What's the upside of being a columnist?
Shaun Powell:
You have a higher profile and more responsibility. You have a platform to speak your mind and vent. There's also a lot of pressure that comes with being a columnist because you're probably the first one people will turn to and read when something big happens. It's great to have that power and voice to say what you want. Columnists write about all sports, so I can be versatile. Beat writers live in a bubble and focus on one sport.

PRWeek: What's the downside?
Powell:
There's no off-season. We have to be up on all sports. Beat writers have their season, but can go spend time on a beach somewhere after it's over.

PRWeek: Are we reaching a point of oversaturation with all of the outlets covering sports today?
Powell:
Columnists used to be the dominant voice in a market, but with all of these other outlets and writers, it's like having all these wolves trying to outhowl each other, and it's not about that. It's about having a clear and concise voice and putting forth a well thought-out argument.

A lot of the people coming into the industry lately are pretenders - "fake opinionistas," if I can make up a word to describe them. What I see now is a lot of guys who do no legwork spending time in the locker rooms talking with coaches and players. I think they get their ideas from reading the papers and don't come up with anything original.

PRWeek: Is there an upside to all this coverage?
Powell:
It forces you to step up your game, be creative. Competition always makes people better.

PRWeek: What don't you like about sports journalism?
Powell:
How a lot of columnists cuddle up to [some] subjects and dislike others. They develop "friend lists" - guys they protect. If a guy refused to give them an interview one time, they'll look to whack him every chance they get. People who do this are conflicted and bring agendas. It's dishonest to the profession and it cheats the readers. And it's condoned by their editors because they see it as an opportunity to maybe get something first.

I don't think editors want it or even like it, but they condone it and it's rampant. Being a columnist is about providing unscripted commentary, and that's not what that is. It leads to some watering down of journalism; they're selling out and throwing the basic principles of journalism out the door. They print rumors because they think they can get ahead or get on the talk shows and on TV. I'm old-school. I see a lot of this new-school crap that's being condoned, and I think to myself, "You gotta be kidding me."

PRWeek: How often will you get pitched by a team's PR rep?
Powell:
I never get pitched.

PRWeek: What don't you like about PR people in sports?
Powell:
One time a PR rep sat in on an interview I did with a basketball player, and I was like, "You have to be kidding." I don't get the hand-holding. When they sit it on interviews, it's a pain in the ass. There are times they can get in the way. I can understand sitting in the room with college athletes because they're kids, but I don't get it on the pro level.

PRWeek: What do you need from a PR person?
Powell:
Most PR people in sports set up interviews and provide fact sheets for us. Occasionally they'll give an idea on what angle a story could go in. When the stuff hits the fan, they get in the way to keep control. They should act as a bridge between the athlete and me. When I need their help is when I need them to sell an idea to a coach or athlete in order to do an interview. The majority of PR people I've dealt with over the past 22 years have been very good. But you would be surprised at how many PR people don't know squat about the players on the team they work for. If it's a football team, I can understand it because it's over 50 different guys. But there are only 12 guys on a basketball team. I mean, come on.

PRWeek: Were you surprised by the outcome of the (College Football) National Championship Game?
Powell:
Honestly, I didn't see it. I fell asleep. I just finished watching the highlights this morning before you called.

PRWeek: Do you think start times are a problem?
Powell:
What major sports event actually starts at a reasonable hour now? Even the Super Bowl, with the pre-game and halftime shows, runs late. I understand these leagues want to make money, but sports are losing an audience by starting so late. They want to reap the commercial benefits and they're letting the networks determine start times.

PRWeek: From a PR perspective, if Barry Bonds is about to pass Hank Aaron's home run record, how do you think Major League Baseball is going to handle it due to all the suspicion around him?
Powell:
Baseball is going to have to handle this as if he was any other player. Bonds hasn't been proven guilty of anything. He's an innocent man. Look, no one's being naïve here, and we all have our suspicions. He even said in testimony that he rubbed some cream on his body, but there has been no evidence found to say he did anything illegal. Major League Baseball is stuck and they have to stick to those facts. What I'm more interested to see is how Hank Aaron handles this. Is he going to hop scotch from stadium to stadium and come down on the field to shake hands with Bonds if he breaks the record? Now I haven't spoken to Hank Aaron about this, and I don't want to speak for him nor do I want to pretend to know what he's thinking, but my gut feeling tells me that if he does participate in this, it will be because someone is twisting his arm.


PRWeek: Do you think the league has tried to backtrack from its targeting of the young hip-hop-centric fan base with the implementation of the dress code?
Powell:
Yes. I think they backtracked on that idea to a certain extent with the dress code. I support the dress code wholeheartedly, by the way.

PRWeek: How do you think the NBA handled the situation with last year's brawl?
Powell:
I'm not sure what else the NBA could have done other than issue the punishments. They were swift and forceful. The league acted responsibly.

PRWeek: Which athlete has had the worst PR lately?
Powell:
Maurice Clarett (the former college football star who was recently arrested for holding up two people outside a Columbus, OH bar on New Year's Day). He went out and attacked the [Ohio State University]. He lied and just made every possible bad decision he could make. [Then] hried to take on the NFL. That was just bad PR. I know he's a young kid, but he either had some people giving him some really poor advice or he was making these bad decisions on his own.

PRWeek: Which athlete is his own best PR machine?
Powell:
Charles Barkley has always been very good at promoting himself as someone who goes deeper than sports.

Name: Shaun Powell
Publication: Newsday
Title: Sports columnist
Preferred contact method: shaun.powell@newsday.com
Website: newsday.com

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