Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton made an intriguing comment following the team’s 17-3 loss to the Chicago Bears. “We squandered that opportunity.” He was talking about the disappointment of losing to a flawed team that completed four measly passes. He could’ve applied the same thought to the opportunity he squandered during the week leading up to Sunday’s game.
Cam Newton finished the week without speaking to the media once, which is a violation of league rules. This triggered a lot of speculation. Jourdan Rodrigue, the same Charlotte Observer reporter who Newton made condescending comments towards on October 4th, returned to the beat. Did Cam skip his weekly media session because of her? Was he silently protesting Rodrigue’s presence? If so, does that make his apology the fakest thing since Marv Albert’s fake hair?
It might’ve been a coincidence that Newton skipped out on a scheduled media session during the same week that Rodrigue returned, but that doesn’t prevent speculation from taking place. Foresight is at a premium these days. Being aware of the way things look is just as important as being aware of the way things are.
The same holds true in sports talk radio. Perception and reality are kissing cousins. Depending on the mindset of certain people, they’re Siamese Twins. If a host says something that seems a certain way, well then it is that way in the minds of many listeners. It’s important to be direct, clear, and specific especially when talking about topics that have social or political ties.
It goes beyond hosts — perception and reality apply to an entire sports talk building. When I was programming a station in Fresno, I rocked a backwards hat each day. I know. I was that guy. It was a more relaxed building than others, but it was still a professional setting. I noticed that co-workers were extremely casual with me. Too casual. It was because of the image I was projecting — being chill to a fault and semi-professional wasn’t me at all, but that perception existed based on my clothes.
Another time, I had a tryout and interview with a Seattle station. Before flying out, I asked what they were looking for and how I should act. They told me they liked my style and to just be myself. For some reason, this caused my brain to think wearing jeans, an untucked button down, and Lugz would be an awesome idea. Not so much.
The station didn’t offer me a gig. I asked what I could do better on my next job interview. I’ll never forget what Owen Murphy told me, “Yeah, well dress better for starters.” I asked if he was serious, which further illustrates how clueless I was at the time. He said that it was a top-20 market and asked what I was thinking. I wasn’t. I’m not Daniel Craig from Bond movies, but I’ve made fashion strides since then.
Former 49ers quarterback Steve Young once shared a really interesting thought about perception and reality. On NFL Network’s “America’s Game,” he talked about losing to the Eagles 40-8 back in 1994. Young was benched during the game in favor of Elvis Grbac. When ole Elvis trotted into the huddle to replace him, that’s when Steve turned into Linda Blair from The Exorcist.
“The funny thing about the whole event, from my teammate’s standpoint was suddenly, I was this fiery leader,” Young said. “And I almost wanted to go home and throw up and think about, ‘Are you kiddin’ me? For all these years I’ve been out here battling and I had to yell at my coach and now you’re like ready to follow me?’ But it taught me the vital lesson in football — perception is reality. If you’re perceived to be something, you might as well be it, because that’s the truth in people’s minds.”
I completely agree that perception can become reality in people’s minds. I disagree with just being what people think you are. If people think you do drugs, should you just do them? No, but you should be aware of others getting the wrong indication based on your clothes, words, and behavior. You should guard against giving the wrong impression, instead of just becoming what you’re perceived to be.
My thought used to be that if someone evaluated me incorrectly, well that’s on them. Not completely. It’s not just on others drawing the wrong conclusion. It’s on you to avoid giving clues that play a role in them making a poor evaluation.
For example, I remember taking part in a meeting back when I programmed a station in Albany, NY. Co-workers were throwing around ideas for the station. “Hey, how ‘bout we broadcast live from the such & such event.” Many of the ideas wouldn’t work for one reason or another, so I channeled my inner Mike Singletary by saying, “Can’t do it.”
After the meeting, our adviser gave me some advice. He told me that people may get the wrong idea based on the way I was saying things. Instead of saying “can’t do it”, it’s much different to say something like, “That’s a great idea, John. I’d love to broadcast there, but there just isn’t a phone line available for us.”
At first I thought, “My goodness. These are grown men and I have to dance around their delicate little feelings? Should I toss out mani-pedi coupons to help them cope with my savage responses?” It wasn’t about that though. It was all about perception. It could’ve been perceived that I was gruff — not a good leader — that I was lazy or against doing something that would benefit the station. None of those things were true, but that could’ve been the perception because I didn’t provide any explanations.
In the business world, you need to be aware of the way things look, not just the way things are.
Cam Newton summed up the Panthers disappointing performance on Sunday by adding, “We will and have to be better.” The same applies to us. Regardless of your role in a sports talk building, there are always ways to improve. Ask yourself how you can avoid perception becoming reality. If you think of your clothes, words, and behavior as reality — not just perception, but the real truth in people’s minds — would that cause you to make any changes?