Oregon track and field coaches routinely deny interview requests on student-athletes’ behalf in an effort to control which stories about the team are disseminated in the news media, the Emerald has found.

Multiple times the Emerald has requested interviews with student-athletes during the indoor and outdoor track seasons, only to discover that the coaches, particularly head coach Robert Johnson, prevented the interviews from happening — sometimes without ever consulting the athletes — because they preferred not to have those stories published.

The revelation contradicts the findings from University of Oregon general counsel Kevin Reed’s investigation of the athletic department earlier this year for potentially violating UO’s free speech policies. Reed’s March 2017 report concluded, “We find no evidence to support the allegation that the athletic department restricts student-athletes’ ability to address the media.”

Athletic department spokesman Craig Pintens says that sports information directors (SIDs), whose job is to facilitate interviews between reporters and student-athletes, usually funnel reporters’ interview requests directly to the student-athletes. Student-athletes are then supposed to have the option of either partaking in or declining the interview.

Oregon track head coach Robert Johnson (GoDucks.com)

But in the case of the track team, the SID informs Johnson of the interview request, then Johnson decides whether or not to grant the interview with the student-athlete.

In February, the Emerald requested interviews with four track and field athletes for a story about international students competing on the indoor track team. Track and field SID Nate Krueger initially responded saying “at least a couple of them” would be made available. But three days later, he told the Emerald via email, “We will have to hold off on the international story interviews for now; the coaches would like to focus on the athletes that will be competing at nationals.”

The Emerald followed up with Krueger, an intern and the SID for six Oregon teams, to ask why students who are not competing at the championships would be unavailable for an interview. Krueger responded, “We held back on those interviews this last week because Coach Johnson wanted all interviews to be focused on the upcoming MPSF and NCAA Championships.​ The stories that [the Emerald] had submitted requests for were both side stories with mostly athletes who will not be competing during the championship season, and the coaches want to make sure stories that we grant interviews for are focused on those athletes that will be competing in those meets. I did try to get those individual requests granted, but the coaches were adamant on holding off.”

In May, the Emerald requested interviews with sprinters Ariana Washington and Alaysha Johnson for stories about how Johnson and other female athletes apply face makeup before meets to boost their confidence and how thrower Ryan Hunter-Simms makes memes of the track team. Krueger told the Emerald three days later, “We’re back in the same situation we were in around the Indoor Championships. Neither of these stories really have to do with what is going on on the track or in competition, so the coaches would like to avoid these stories at this time.”

The Emerald later asked two of the previously requested athletes, Alaysha Johnson and international sprinter Chin Hui, whether an SID or coach ever informed them of the Emerald’s interview requests. Both said they were never informed.

When asked at a media availability on June 1 why he denies interviews on behalf of his student-athletes, Johnson disputed it.

“I think that is inaccurate,” Johnson said, “because [the Emerald] will send us a request of 15 kids, and you’ll get three, and then it’s bad, and we’re holding the kids back. So I don’t think there’s ever been a time when you’ve requested somebody that you didn’t get somebody. So that’s why I feel that your statement is inaccurate, and we don’t censor or hold back our kids from interviewing.”

Johnson is referring to an email the Emerald sent Krueger in March detailing four possible stories it hoped to pursue in the spring. The Emerald named 14 athletes whom it wanted to interview for those stories at some point during the season.

The season is almost over — NCAA championships begin Wednesday, June 7 — and Johnson and Krueger have since approved only two of the 14 requests.

Restricting press access

The athletic department requires that all media requests to interview athletes be routed through the team’s SID. So when coaches or SIDs block athletes’ access to the press, reporters often resort to circumventing the team’s interview protocols.

If SIDs find out, however, that a reporter has spoken to an athlete without permission, they sometimes threaten to revoke the reporter’s press credentials. The athletic department threatened to revoke the Emerald’s press credentials for the Civil War football game against Oregon State in November, after the Emerald contacted a student-athlete by phone without the athletic department’s permission.

University of Oregon general counsel Kevin Reed (AroundtheO)

That threat, delivered by football SID Dave Williford, prompted the UO Senate and UO President Michael Schill to ask Reed, UO’s attorney, to investigate whether the athletic department was violating UO’s policies on free speech. Reed’s investigation concluded that the Emerald credibly perceived Williford’s comments as a threat, but found no evidence that the athletic department restricts student-athletes access to the press.

A recommendation from Reed’s report was: “Media relations staff in the Department of Athletics should continue to promote its practice of empowering student-athletes to make their own choices about whether they wish to speak to the press or refrain from doing so.”

In response to the recommendation, UO Athletic Director Rob Mullens said in an email to the Emerald, “The media relations staff is continuing to work with student-athletes on protocols and re-emphasized the students choice of speaking to media or declining.”

UO athletic department spokesman Pintens told the Emerald in an email, “In most cases, the SID will promptly contact the student-athlete directly about an interview request. It can vary by team, but coaches are generally made aware of requests. In the event an interview is not conducted, there are multiple reasons for it being declined. The student-athlete might not feel comfortable conducting an interview, might not want to cause a distraction, or it might not fit into a student-athlete’s busy schedule.”

Pintens added that when staff members meet with the team to go over media policies — typically at a preseason team meeting or practice — student-athletes “are encouraged to participate in interviews and other media availabilities, but are told that ultimately the decision is up to them.”

The Oregon track and field team’s practice regarding interview requests — and Krueger’s emails — however, seem to directly contradict the statements made by Johnson, Reed, Mullens and Pintens.

“I don’t know if you understand how it works,” Johnson told the Emerald. “The NCAA is really big on these time demand things, and these athletes that we have here — we have 85 athletes on our team, and you can imagine the number of requests that come in for [star distance runner] Edward Cheserek. So oftentimes we leave it up to the kids, and they can say no, and then we’ll be the bad guys and say, ‘No, you cannot talk to this student-athlete.’ But on the outside of those cases, we pick and choose. We try to spread the wealth. We don’t want anybody to feel like they’re unfairly advantaged here.

“We have lots of kids and lots of talented people. If the media — you guys — had it your way, you would only talk to Edward Cheserek here in our program, and that wouldn’t be fair, so we give kind of everybody an opportunity. And there’s some requests that we want to do. We’ve been very gracious to the Emerald in granting them requests. As you can see, the article out there with [sprinter] Raevyn Rogers and the lipstick — that’s been a hit, and we do these things oftentimes. Oftentimes we also find ourselves in some of these things that the Emerald does where you do these interviews, and then they never get published or posted.”

But Johnson and Krueger did not make Rogers available to the Emerald to interview for the makeup story. The Emerald was able to get ahold of Rogers by pulling her aside after a large group interview session, and Krueger reprimanded the Emerald for doing so without prior approval, even though Rogers was willing to do the interview.

Additionally, Krueger said one of the reasons the Emerald’s interview requests were denied in February was because the Emerald had not yet published a story about distance runner Ashley Maton for which it previously interviewed her. The Emerald did eventually publish the story, after it spent time editing it to prepare it for publication.

“Being completely honest with you, the coaches and director of ops were frustrated that [the Emerald] had put in a number of additional requests while the Maton story had still not been seen by anyone,” Krueger said via email. “We are not trying to prevent [the Emerald] from writing those stories at all, and would be more than happy to grant those interviews after the NCAA indoors as outdoors get going. That would be a great time for those types of stories.”

Oregon Ducks head coach Robert Johnson watches the 1500 meters. The NCAA Track and Field National Championship is held at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon on June 9, 2016. (Cole Elsasser/Emerald)

No explanation given

Reed interviewed Johnson as part of his investigation of the athletic department for restricting student-athletes’ access to reporters, but nothing about the track team’s interview practice showed up in his report.

Reed did not respond to three email requests for comment on this story.

The Emerald asked Krueger via email to explain why multiple athletes said they were never informed of the Emerald’s interview requests. Krueger did not answer the question, instead forwarding the email to Pintens.

Pintens did not explain either, except to say, “As stated in my previous email on the topic, generally, the majority of requests for student-athlete interviews are brought directly to the student-athletes. The Emerald is tied for the most individual feature requests (with the Oregonian) granted since the first track and field availability in early January, which includes several notable national track publications.”

The Emerald counted four individual interview requests it has been granted since January.

The Emerald followed up with Pintens three times via email to ask why the athletic department is permitting a practice that restricts its student-athletes’ access to media. Pintens did not respond to those emails.

A few hours after the Emerald sent the email to Krueger, track and field assistant athletic director Jill Steele sent an email to all the athletes on the track team urging them not to provide any information to media outlets without the athletic department’s approval.

Jonathan Hawthorne and Hannah Bonnie contributed reporting to this story.

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