A Blitz of Reality

Life in the press box is glitzy but fosters a businesslike approach to football

I don’t know why I like watching football. Unlike professional wrestling, I didn’t grow up watching the sport. I never played it in high school because of my fear of being injured. Instead I played saxophone in my school’s marching band. 

Being an enterprising reporter, I wouldn’t let lack of experience get in my way of covering Duck football. I contacted University of Oregon’s Athletic Department to see if I could get press access into the football games. 

I was told that because Eugene Weekly doesn’t attend any camps, away games or midweek press conferences, I could only attend a few games that the bigger media outlets wouldn’t cover.

It becomes clear right away as a reporter with press box access at Autzen that you’re entering another world: Someone is operating the elevator. Yes, Autzen Stadium in 2018 has an “elevator lady.” I don’t think it’s a security issue. It’s because an angel is needed to take you to heaven. 

Once on the media floor, the aroma of popcorn carries you to your seat. From there, a reporter — who’s probably making barely above living wages — has access to an all-you-can-eat buffet presumably made by UO Catering, endless popcorn and a never-ending fountain of soda and coffee. 

I wonder if this is truly a UO Catering experience because it’s not the typical menu you see at events when you’re a starving student, floating around for a free meal. Instead, it’s a collection of food that is actually warm and tasty — although when burritos are on the menu, the tortillas are still cold. 

My experience inside the Autzen Stadium press box reinforces the notion that sports reporters are one of the most cared-for bunches in the industry. Trust me, I don’t enjoy this sort of hospitality at local government meetings. On the other hand, you’ll find reporters with more animation when covering a city council meeting than a football game. 

During the nonconference games at UO at least (this year, UO only played lower-tier teams), no one seemed too interested in having fun inside the press box. Maybe I’m out of place to suggest this, but I think football should be a fun game to watch. It should then be analyzed mercilessly afterward by people who have never put on pads and a helmet and squared off on the gridiron — in other words, by people like me. 

Instead, reporters furiously updated social media accounts and typed the bare-bones statistics, which the UO provides at the end of the quarter, onto their respective news sites. So, I wonder, why detach yourself from the excitement of the game?  

I guess I drank the Kool-Aid while in the press box, too, but as a whole, UO has an amazing line-up of student-athletes right now to get excited over — even if it’s still a day at the office. Justin Herbert, a Eugene native, leads the team as quarterback. Herbert is the last glimmer of hope we have in Eugene, a city that cannot find a way to deal with problems like financially strapped schools, lack of access to affordable housing and the dearth of well-paying jobs. We don’t even have a city hall.

Yet we have reporters in the press box who don’t want to sit back and bask in the warmth of Herbert’s talent. I mean, as of now, the guy leads the Pac-12 conference with 15 touchdown passes. He averages 282.2 yards per game and is on the shortlist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. 

Now, there were certain moments where other reporters in the press box took out their phones to snap some photos or show some emotion. Most of the time, this was during the “Star Spangled Banner,” when a huge, battleship-sized U.S. flag was spread out across the football field. Being mere mortals, it’s impossible not to be excited when Puddles the Duck rides by on a motorcycle in a display of avian coolness. 

Maybe it’s a sense of objectivity these reporters feel they must follow, which can be cast aside for patriotism and Puddles. I say save that pretense for another beat, because objective journalism is a farce, especially when it comes to football. 

With only a few minutes to go in the game, being a reporter with press access takes you onto the sidelines. Of course, the last thing that I make sure to do is snag a few cookies for the trip down to the field. 

I try to look serious while on the sideline, as if I’m supposed to be there. But, as I look around at the fans around me (albeit a lot fewer than when the game kicked off) and gaze back to the action of colliding pads and helmets, I’m sure I’m sporting a dumb “Holy crap, I’m on the sidelines!” smile on my face. 

For the other reporters, this novelty has surely worn off. 

When the game clock counts down to zero, the cardio and strength coordinator Aaron Feld herds the players off the field. Feld, whose body and personality match that of a WWE wrestler named Sheamus with a vaudevillian twist, shouts for the players to get inside the locker room. 

That’s the cue for reporters to follow the clip-clop of football players into the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, which has the look and feel of the Death Star.  

Coach Mario Cristobal is no Darth Vader or Emperor Palpatine. Rather, he dissects the faults of the game in a technical manner that makes him sound more like one of those Star Wars Imperial officers who think “the Force” is some ancient myth and that true power resides in knowledge and strategy — more like General Hux than Kylo Ren.

Much of Cristobal’s technical breakdowns of the game go over my head. Sure, I know a bit about slants, posts and whatnot from my years of playing the Madden football video game series, but at least in between the rapid-fire questioning directed by the football program’s communications official, occasional genuine charisma emerges from the student-athletes who leave the comfort of the canned, coached responses I’m sure they are fed. 

Tony Brooks-James, running back, dishes jokes against the other running back, Travis Dye. Freshman Adrian Jackson welcomes jokes about himself for making up words like being “preparated” for the game. 

Toward the end of the night of the first game of the nonconference football schedule, I start to feel why these other reporters look so disinterested in the press box. 

First of all, it’s a nonconference football game, so there’s no real challenge — this year’s schedule seemed as interesting as the Cleveland Browns’ NFL preseason games (the Browns, in case you don’t know, are synonymous with losing). 

Now multiply an uninteresting football game by its length — about three and a half hours — and add another hour of questions and answers from coaching staff and student-athletes. And I didn’t even experience the banality of mid-week practices. 

I guess I won’t be too heartbroken if I’m not invited back to cover Duck football and have to stick to the city council beat for the rest of my professional life. But, hey, Duck football and I will always have burritos with cold flour tortillas. For that, I am grateful. 

Read Henry Houston’s coverage of Duck football at eugeneweekly.com. Luckily for his press compatriots, he’ll be out of town when No. 17 Oregon plays No. 7 University of Washington, but he will return to Autzen for two games in November. 

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