Football season has arrived in Missoula, and with it a litany of enthusiastic Griz coverage from local news outlets. Reporters are writing not only about scores and highlights, but about an industry that's deeply entwined with Missoula's economy and consciousness.
But reporting sports comes with challenges, some of which, reporters say, are presented by the university's athletic department. AJ Mazzolini covered Griz football at the Missoulian for two and a half years, and describes his relationship with UM's sports information department as "tumultuous."
"Occasionally I may have pushed a little more than would've made them comfortable," Mazzolini says. For its part, he says, the athletic department restricts access to players and makes it difficult to report certain stories.
All requests to speak to players and coaches go through the sports information department. For football, the contact is Eric Taber, assistant sports information director and a graduate of UM's journalism school. Reporters are allowed to conduct interviews at two 15-minute weekly sessions before practices, and ask questions at a weekly press conference. Reporters can also request a player be available for an interview or at the press conference. Mazzolini says players were not always made available in response to such requests. Taber says players "accommodate virtually every request we get."
Sometimes, this relationship can become fraught, like when J.R. Nelson, a star Griz cornerback, failed a drug test in 2016.
Mazzolini says that was a "a major news story." The punishment for a failed test was sitting out half the next season. Mazzolini says Taber asked him to not report the story until the NCAA appeals process was finished, which Mazzolini says took another three months. Mazzolini and his editors decided to go ahead and publish the story without comment from the coach or player, and he says Taber wasn't happy with that decision.
Taber confirms that he asked Mazzolini to hold the story out of concern for possible effects on the player's future.
Kevin Van Valkenburg, a senior writer at ESPN and 2000 UM grad, spent a semester in 2015 as a visiting professor at the university's journalism school and an adviser to the Montana Kaimin. He met with both Taber and UM Athletic Director Kent Haslam about what he saw as the department trying to "strong-arm" Kaimin reporters.
"I've covered a ton of major programs throughout the country," Van Valkenburg says. "Almost all of them were more accommodating than the University of Montana."
Taber says UM's media policies are standard for large universities, and that while media access is restricted to certain times, it provides ample opportunity for beat reporters.
"It's not something that's designed to be difficult," he says. "We appreciate and enjoy all the coverage we get."
Mazzolini disagrees, and says he grew frustrated with what felt like a constant battle for information.
"Part of the reason that I ended up leaving was because of that dance [with the athletic department]," he says. "They really wanted me to be the bad guy."
Mazzolini left the Missoulian in July and now attends graduate school at Belmont University in Nashville studying sports administration. Yes, he appreciates the irony. He says he wants to bring a newsman's perspective to sports information, but he admits there's also a simpler reason: "It's easier to be on the inside."