Hartford Courant sports reporter Tom Yantz turned in something of a scoop last month. He covers high-school sports in Connecticut and wrote up a profile of the undefeated football team at Newtown High School. The piece hit the streets nearly a year after the massacre at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, furnishing a familiar theme for Yantz’s story.
“No one will ever forget what happened,” team running back Cooper Gold told Yantz. “We wanted the community to look on more positive things, if even for a little while. Every time we’ve played a game, our motto has been: ‘Try to put a smile on someone’s face.'”
That motivation has worked. Newtown’s squad is now 12-0 heading into a state quarterfinal game tonight against Ridgefield. Should Newtown rack up two more wins in the tournament, it’ll play for the championship one day before the anniversary of the massacre.
The team’s romp through the ranks will be closely watched — by in-state media outlets. National media, not so much.
Sports officials in Connecticut yesterday sent an alert on media access. Here it is, from the offices of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC):
The Newtown High School football team will begin CIAC football tournament play with a quarterfinal game on Tuesday, December 3 at Newtown.
Newtown has requested the CIAC assist in distributing information regarding the school’s decision concerning media coverage of the event.
The school is requesting that media access to the game, and any subsequent Newtown football tournament games, be limited to the family of media entities who have demonstrated their long-term commitment to Connecticut athletics. In addition, the school requests that questions directed to players and or coaches following the game be restricted to game-related topics.
The school administration, students, parents, and Newtown community greatly appreciate the support they have received from the media and are grateful for everyone’s continued cooperation.
Joel Cookson, CIAC’s director of media and sports information, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that he’s received one access request from an outlet that’s not a member of the “family of media entities who have demonstrated their long-term commitment to Connecticut athletics.” More such requests will doubtless filter in if Newtown continues its winning ways. “If they keep advancing, more people are going to want to get involved with the story,” says Cookson.
A grim curtain faces those non-family organizations that would like to cover Newtown’s fortunes. According to Cookson, such outlets will be able to buy tickets to the games (of course). They won’t, however, have “media access to players and coaches immediately following the game,” says Cookson. A media clampdown also took effect for the first scheduled athletic event following the Dec. 14, 2012, shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The decision to stiff-arm news organizations, says Cookson, didn’t originate with the CIAC. “It came from their school district,” he says. Newtown High, says Cookson, wants to have a “normal game as much as they possibly can,” and the CIAC is “certainly” committed to honoring the school’s request regarding the media.
As for the Newtown school system itself, the Erik Wemple Blog attempted to reach Athletic Director Gregg Simon but failed. A man who answered the phone, however, offered to answer our questions. His bottom line boiled down to this: “There is no story here, there’s nothing at all,” said the man, who declined to give his name but said he works for the school system. “We’re playing football and people are trying to make stories out of stuff that’s not really there.”
Could that have been a reference to Yantz’s story tying together the team’s prowess and the town’s efforts to recover from Dec. 14? “We’re completely staying away from that,” said the man. “It’s time for us to move on and get along with our lives.”
The story — which bore the subhead: “Nighthawks, Ranked No. 3 In State, Dedicate Season To Sandy Hook Victims” — apparently had the full cooperation of the team and the community. It quoted not only players, but also a booster, a fan and the coach, who said that his team “has extra motivation to give back to the community. There are a tremendous number of other people in Newtown who have helped out and given back. Football is one of those things hopefully that helps us all move on, to try to get back to normal.” Yantz tells the Erik Wemple Blog that he avoided asking directly about Sandy Hook and pursued the question: Do you think success of the football team is helping the community? “That was my main question. I thought it balanced the sensitivity to Newtown and the football team rather than just going in there and asking about Sandy Hook,” says Yantz.
The intentions behind the move to restrict media at Newtown games come from a good place. “They’re just trying to help people,” says Yantz, 60, who has worked for the sports page at the Hartford Courant for 38 years. “The pain will never go away. … If it helps these people in this situation, in this time, then it’s a good thing.”
Pack journalism in the aftermath of the shootings offended a lot of Newtownians, an experience that appears to have informed the football media cordon. Yet keeping national media outlets out of the locker room may well sell short the Newtown players themselves. In Yantz’s story, after all, they come off as caring, articulate and sensitive to their community’s trauma. What’s the point in suppressing that happy story?