Fans don't really understand sports journalists.

Fans' vision of the profession: hanging out with sports stars, getting into games for free, receiving autographs and team jerseys and rooting for the home team.

Reality: dealing with athletes who sometimes don't want to speak with you, getting to games several hours early and staying several hours afterward, arguing with folks at the front gate who still want to charge you, declining all memorabilia offers and rooting for the best story. Oh yeah, and driving hours through back roads to cover prep sports, and walking the sidelines or sitting in the bleachers when it's raining, freezing or sweltering.
Obviously, covering sports for a living has many more advantages than disadvantages - watching sports, talking with interesting people and being outside (most of the time) - far, far from cubicles and cranky bosses.
But sports writers certainly have to act much differently than fans, whose instincts are to get a 'piece" of their favorite players and teams. Sports writers should take only notes.

"Covering sports presents the constant challenge of rejecting offers of meals, tickets and gifts," says Vicki Michaelis, sports writer for USA Today. "I follow the twenty-five dollar rule in these circumstances. I don't accept anything more than twenty-five dollars. And the majority of what I do accept (usually because it comes to me in the mail so it's difficult to return), I give to charity."

Sports writers should adhere to both the Sports Editor Ethics Guidelines of the Associated Press and the Code of Ethics of the Society for Professional Journalists, but these do not cover every ethical challenge faced by sports journalists. Here are a few more daily ethical challenges to consider.

1. Do not cover any team you play for. Yes, this is a challenge for smaller high school and college staffs, but you'll face dilemmas both as a journalist and as an athlete. Do you write about teammates fumbling the ball in the fourth quarter, or striking out four times in a key game, or missing several free throws down the stretch? How do you interview your coach, the person who decides whether you'll be playing? And do you really think coaches and players from other teams are going to speak to someone wearing an opponent's jersey? This says "fail" all over it.

2. Do not work simultaneously for the sports information office and the college newspaper, a job arrangement that will split your allegiance. You hear in the sports information director's office that a coach is going to get fired. Do you report it? In the newsroom, you hear the paper is starting to investigate a volleyball player. Do you give the SID that tip? This creates far more problems than it's worth. In the end, your credibility can be destroyed - and nobody will trust you.

3. Cite others' work. If you learn something from another reporter or news organization, give credit for others' efforts. Do not rewrite the information and act as though you broke, or reported, the story. You may trick some readers, but you'll hurt your reputation among your peers (and, ultimately, more savvy readers will catch on to this practice).

4. Don't accept gifts. Decline team jerseys, hats and anything else offered to you by anyone associated with the organizations and teams you cover. News organizations sometimes set a dollar figure for gifts, which usually covers meals or items that cannot be returned.

5. Don't be a homer, openly rooting for your team. Refrain from cheering both in the press box and in your own stories. Leave that to the sports information office. You do not work for the teams but for readers, many of whom may not care for this team. In addition, don't wear team memorabilia when you are working as a sports journalist. That's a major credibility killer. (For that matter, do not wear ripped jeans or T-shirts that promote any team, beer or ridiculous statement. Dress professionally, even at practices.)

6. Don't attack coaches or players who refuse to speak with you or who have angered you. Cover them the same as you would any other person associated with the team. And columns are not a place to vent about confrontations on the beat. First, readers don't care about your problems. (Remember: fans think you have a dream job, hangin' with their favorite players.) Second, you'll destroy your reputation in the locker room, prompting coaches and players to stop speaking directly with you.

7. Don't accept favors given because of your job as a sports journalist. That means you can't purchase extra tickets to the Rose Bowl from someone in the athletic department, an offer that is probably made because you cover the team or work as the sports editor. Ask yourself: Could anybody else purchase these tickets at this price? Or would they have to pay far higher fees from ticket agents - if they could even find someone to sell one? If the answer is no, then you should decline such offers as well.

8. Give people the opportunity to respond to charges, whether it's one coach saying another cheats or one player saying another one plays dirty. If you must publish a claim like this, refrain until you contact the person getting criticized.

9. Use social networks to contact athletes if you cannot find another way. Even though information on MySpace and Facebook is frequently published for public consumption, you should find other ways to speak with these players. Develop a professional relationship at practices and after games. You may use these social networks to introduce yourself and to set up an interview, but avoid using Facebook for the interview - except, perhaps, during a deadline of a serious, late-breaking event (and that does not mean writing a feature or preview story on deadline).

10. Of course, the big question is - can you eat from the buffet in the press box? A plate of Swedish meatballs, a ham sandwich or a hamburger will probably not sway a reporter to cover the team differently. At some venues, sports writers are stuck, unable to depart and purchase a meal elsewhere. That is one reason buffets are
offered at larger sports events. Eating the food should be acceptable (unless you try sneaking out additional meatballs in your backpack).