Sawhney: The ethics of quoting Harbaugh

Nov. 3, 2010, 1:30 a.m.

When I sat down to write this column, my thoughts initially went straight to the Giants. After all, they are a great story, bringing San Francisco its first World Series championship since the team has been located in the city.

However, too much has been written about this band of “castoffs” and “misfits” by others to justify another sentimental column from yours truly.

As I scanned Twitter for the latest trends, I stumbled on a feed from Bob Condotta, one of the Seattle Times’ correspondents for Washington football. Condotta linked to a story by a Seattle Times columnist, Bud Withers, who quoted Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh as part of his story.

Where this gets tricky, however, is that Harbaugh’s words may or may not have been ethically acceptable to publish.

In postgame press conferences at Stanford Stadium, the media is not allowed into the press conference room (which is adjacent to the locker room) until after Harbaugh has finished giving his postgame speech to his team and the players have had a chance to remove their pads before coming out for interviews. This is done so that the team can have a private moment before coming out and facing the media, a right to which it is most certainly entitled.

However, at Husky Stadium this past weekend, the setup was somewhat different. The media was funneled into an area next to the basketball arena, right next to the route the players took into the locker room. The Stanford players stopped in an area separated by a curtain from the press conference area, where other media members and I were standing. Harbaugh gave his postgame speech here, just six feet away from a slew of cameras, microphones and notebooks.

As I stood in the tunnel listening to that speech, I was gripped by an ethical dilemma, the first in my time covering Stanford sports–should I record what was being said and quote Harbaugh afterward as having said it? While he wasn’t terribly inflammatory, I’m fairly certain that, had he known he was being recorded and was not speaking in a private setting, he would have changed what he said. I chose not to record the speech, and limited myself to what Harbaugh and his players said in the press conference, when they had full knowledge that they were speaking “on the record.”

However, Withers didn’t seem to wrestle with the same sort of dilemma that I did. Since he has already published quotes from Harbaugh’s postgame speech on the website of the Seattle Times, I will republish those quotes here; however, I did not publish them in my original game recap, and would not have published them unless they were already “out there.”

Here’s exactly what was in the column:

“‘Dominating!’ Harbaugh hooted at his players. ‘We kicked their ass every which way! One hell of a job on both sides of the line! Dominant, dominant!’ Then Harbaugh referenced Pete Carroll, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and the UW head coach’s defensive coordinator, Nick Holt, and said, ‘What are you guys, 5-1, 6-1 against that group (in his four-year tenure)? That’s the highest-paid coaching staff around!’”

When he was speaking to his team, Harbaugh did not know he was on the record, and would likely not have consented to being quoted. He was also not speaking in a public setting. To put it simply, there are some unwritten rules by which coaches conduct themselves when speaking with the media, and one of them is that you don’t publicly belittle or degrade your opponent. Even if you win a game 100-0, you at least have to make a public show of respect.

It’s noteworthy that Harbaugh did not make similar comments 10 minutes later, when he came outside to talk to the microphones; he talked a lot about his team’s great performance, but came nowhere close to saying, “We kicked their ass every which way!” That’s the type of talk that’s permissible in a locker room, but not in front of a microphone.

Sarkisian, the Washington head coach, responded the next day, saying, “I guess when you win 41-0 you get to say what you want to say, but I have a firm belief that the football gods get you in the end.”

Clearly, Sarkisian was unhappy because Harbaugh had broken that unspoken rule–no matter how big you win, you still must publicly show respect for your opponent. It’s the same reason coaches get unhappy and spout off in press conferences when their opponent was “running up the score”; it’s just not very sportsmanlike.

So I don’t think Bud Withers acted ethically in printing those statements from Jim Harbaugh. Taking statements that were meant to be private and airing them publicly is not respected journalism and breaks the trust that exists between sportswriters and the athletes and coaches we cover.

Of course, I suppose it helps that Withers writes for the Seattle Times and doesn’t have to bother with Harbaugh again for a whole year. Harbaugh knows the Bay Area press corps that covers his team (including myself), since it’s the same set of correspondents at every game and practice; thus, he could make a reporter’s life very difficult if he wanted, by refusing to answer that person’s questions. However, a reporter tasked with covering the Washington football team is not under any such constraints; the coach doesn’t know who he is, and the reporter (in this case, Withers) doesn’t have to get quotes from Harbaugh again any time soon.

Kabir Sawhney only has 23 followers on Twitter. Make him feel popular at ksawhney “at”

Kabir Sawhney is currently a desk editor for the News section. He served as the Managing Editor of Sports last volume.

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