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Rookies learn rules of media game

Cooperating with the media isn't something NFL players do because they are publicity hounds or to merely kill time between games.

It is a requirement, written into the standard contract they sign with their team. And handling it properly is no less important than anything else a player does in his pursuit of a successful career.

That was why the NFL Rookie Symposium devoted extensive time to media relations.

"We need good public relations in the NFL because it's good for our business," Greg Aiello, the league's vice president of public relations, told the rookies. "It's important to the success of the NFL and it's important to you, personally."

Aiello led a panel discussion, titled "Players and the Media," that also featured Reggie Roberts, director of communications for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who has built himself into one of the more popular media figures in the game.

As the nation's No. 1 spectator sport, the NFL has long prided itself on having strong media and community relations. Many players have found the experience enjoyable and rewarding, with a number going onto successful careers as network television and radio announcers. Some current players, such as New York Giants running back Tiki Barber, already have part-time TV jobs in their local markets.

But, even under the best of circumstances, dealing with the media isn't always easy or pleasant.

"It's like the game of football, it's a challenge," Aiello said. "You often hear dealing with the media referred to as 'playing the media game.' There's a lot to that analogy. And if it's a game, then you need to have a game plan."

That was the purpose of the panel discussion. It was also why players received a "media relations playbook" as part of the large loose-leaf binder they received at the start of the Symposium, why they were shown a videotape on media relations, and why they heard from Lisa LeMaster, a professional media trainer who has worked with numerous heads of major corporations and politicians.

The major points of the panel were:

• Don't forget that when you speak with a reporter, you are not speaking with one person; your speaking with thousands and millions of fans.

• An interview is not a private conversation, and certainly not an intimate chat with a friend.

• Say what's in your best interest and the best interest of your team.

"What can really help you is listening to what the coach says, not only in team meetings, but also reading and watching what he says to the media," Aiello pointed out.

"All you have to do is take five or 10 of his words and turn them back on the media," Sapp told the rookies. "And everybody is saying the same thing, from the head man down to the kicker. You're all on the same page."

• Say only what you want repeated.

"Whatever you tell them is what they're going to put out there," Sapp said. "If don't want something written, don't say it. And don't get punched in the side of the mouth. If you get a question that's a little edgy, a little dicey, just pass on it."

• Make use of your public relations staff.

"They're the best assets you can have," Sapp said. "They can be the buffer between a dicey situation or a great situation. Before I'll do an interview with, say, CNN, Reggie is going to talk with the reporter and then let me know what that reporter wants to talk about. Then you have an overview. It's like a book test, and the book for me is Reggie. You work is a team."

The rookies were told of the basic NFL media schedule, which includes open locker rooms to reporters after games and for three 45-minute periods during the week of practice, as well as occasionally being asked to conduct a midweek conference call with reporters that cover the opposing team.

They were also reminded that network television collectively pays the NFL about $2 billion per year to broadcast its games, and a good portion of that money goes to player salaries.

"So you be called on, from time to time, to visit with network television announcers before they broadcast your games," Aiello said. "Your job is to be available.

"Many players go beyond the minimums and reap a lot of benefits. They have radio and TV shows. They get endorsement opportunities. And they get very involved with their communities, which is a strong NFL tradition."

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