Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mike Kelly still doesn't understand the CFL

One of the most controversial figures in the CFL in recent years is Mike Kelly, who coached the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to a 7-11 record in 2009 and then was fired after being charged with assault in an apparent domestic dispute. (Those charges were apparently dropped later in return for Kelly agreeing to take an anger-management course.) Kelly's record alone probably wouldn't have been enough to keep him so well-remembered, as there have been plenty of coaches who have done even worse (Bart Andrus, anyone?) , but his entire tenure in Winnipeg was marked by feuds with everyone from media to fans, as well as some bizarre rants. He's not really in a position to have a meaningful feud with media or fans at the moment, but the rants are back, and now they're in blog form.

To be fair to Kelly (pictured above right after his 2009 arrest), a lot of the stuff he's posted so far isn't all that wrong or controversial. Yes, leadership and taking responsibility is rather important, and there are some issues with all-volunteer boards running teams (that doesn't mean community ownership is bad, though; see how well the Riders have done with a volunteer board working with a full-time president, Jim Hopson). Yes, having people with optimism and vision is probably a good thing. It's his latest post that's jumped the shark, though, and not surprisingly, it's on the subject of the media.

Mike Kelly writing about the proper way to handle CFL media is about as logical as a salmon writing a guide to harvesting a field of grain. He doesn't have a lot of experience on the subject, and much of the experience he does have from the 2009 campaign was more of a lesson in what not to do than what to do. Most of his post talks about the media policy he tried to put in place in Winnipeg, which was an abject failure. He blames that on not being able to hire an experienced public relations director, and he couldn't be more wrong there. Public-relations staffers do have an important job, but the best PR staff in the world can't be expected to enforce a policy that widely deviates from league-wide norms and attempts to make it impossible for media to do their jobs. Kelly's proposed policy would have turned the Bombers from a relatively open organization to one of the most restrictive in all of professional sports, as you can see from the details he presents:

All requests will be made through our media relations department. No calls are permitted directly to the players or the assistant coaches without clearance through the media relations department.

The Head Coach is the primary spokesman for the team. Media will have access to the coaching staff but will have guidelines as to what subjects they are allowed to address.


Practices at training camp will be open to the media. Once the regular season begins, media will only be allowed to cover the first 15 minutes (individual period) of practice and then will be escorted from the practice area by a media relations representative.

Kelly goes on to mention that he tried to ban players from speaking to reporters by phone, and he then tried to make himself the only contact for media, but only made himself available for two hours each day. His policy was an abject failure, but not for the reasons he claims; it had very little to do with the lack of an experienced PR director, but rather never got far because of its inherently ridiculous nature. Much of what Kelly proposed goes beyond even NFL teams' notoriously difficult access guidelines, and it was never going to work in the looser structure of the CFL. It's understandable that Kelly didn't necessarily have a full understanding of how the CFL media structure worked, as he'd spent most of his coaching career in the NFL and NCAA ranks before coming to the Bombers, but his attempt to set himself up as the unitary authority in Winnipeg was doomed from the start.

What's clear from Kelly's post is that not only were his media policies flawed, they were based on a faulty understanding of the media's role in the CFL. That's an understanding he apparently continues to maintain, as demonstrated by his concluding remarks:

With the outstanding growth the CFL is experiencing in terms of viewership and an inter-active fan base, the league and each club will realize that controlling the message and providing limits to the media is the only viable path to defer distractions that ultimately affect the product on the field.

Game Day is for the fans and they are entitled to the best product available. For that to happen, the team needs a level of insulation to prepare in a way to give the fan the utmost for their entertainment dollar.

As is typical in his post, Kelly's conflating unrelated causes and effects. Of course the fans are entitled to the best product available on the field, but I find it awfully hard to believe that product's going to be damaged by the majority of media coverage. There are particular instances where this could happen, such as media revealing a particular trick play in advance, but that hasn't happened much at all and there are policies in place to make it unlikely it will. Most CFL media coverage isn't about the X's and O's, but rather the people involved, and the vast majority of pieces aren't going to have any negative impact on a team on game day. In fact, you could argue that a head coach working around the clock to keep players and assistant coaches from talking to the media and trying to handle all media inquiries himself has far more potential to damage the game-day product, as the time he spends trying to control the media could be more profitably devoted to watching film and planning strategies.

Moreover, Kelly (pictured at right executing a facepalm after a 39-17 defeat against Hamilton in November 2009) misunderstands the role of the media and the effect of clamping down on access. Sports media outlets aren't trying to put out information for its own sake; the goal is generally to provide information to the fans, so trying to shut down the media is not something to "give the fan the utmost for his entertainment dollar", but rather to deny fans as much access to the team's players, strategies and decision-making as possible. That's a particularly calamitous move in the CFL, a league whose popularity is directly related to the amount of information and access available to fans. Even the NFL recognizes the value of fans, media and information to an extent, so it's unclear why Kelly wanted to try and become more draconian than that league.

Kelly's take here is emblematic of a deeply flawed approach to media relations that some teams and leagues have tried, but generally not for long. His approach is the equivalent of rewriting histories to favour your side and chanting slogans such as "Freedom Is Slavery" and "Ignorance Is Strength", and unlike the world of 1984, a boot stamping on a human face forever doesn't work in the realm of sports media relations. Denying access doesn't stop the signal, it just makes it so your side of the story doesn't get out there. Plenty of great coverage can be done without official access, and that coverage tends by nature to be less favourable for teams, as their perspective isn't included.

The CFL generally recognizes the problems with trying to clamp down on the media, and the league's been very smart about providing a wide variety of access to media outlets. There are still issues, of course, but the current policies are far more positive for everyone than Kelly's dystopian vision of the future. Teams and the league get plenty of positive publicity, media get access and fans get lots of information about their teams. That approach has worked just fine for most of the CFL's current coaches, whereas Kelly's controlling policies resulted in several messy fights and a lot of bad publicity for the Bombers. It's not like they led to great on-field success either, as the team finished with a 7-11 record and missed the playoffs. Kelly's blog shows that he still doesn't particularly get the CFL or the role of the media, and thus, it's probably a good thing that he's a blogger instead of a CFL head coach these days.

Rachel Bilson Karen Carreno Bijou Phillips Marika Dominczyk Dita Von Teese

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