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Not wanting to talk to the media after a loss is understandable, but it costs supporters insight

Utah Utes running back Joe Williams (28) runs the ball for a touchdown, putting Utah up 52-38 after the PAT, during a game against the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016.
Utah Utes running back Joe Williams (28) runs the ball for a touchdown, putting Utah up 52-38 after the PAT, during a game against the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016.
Spenser Heaps,

SALT LAKE CITY — In the last few weeks, I’ve watched a lot of seasons end.

And because talking to coaches and players after a loss can be challenging and unpredictable, I tend to volunteer to cover the teams that lose. There are a few reasons for this, but first, I need to offer a caveat. Postgame interviews are not my favorite.

They might be the worst environment for having real conversations. There is a lengthy list of reasons for this, but they are a staple of our business because a massive component to the athletic experience is the support of the fan. And on those sidelines, in those locker rooms and jammed into media areas and mixed zones are those of us lucky enough to represent the fans. It’s our job to bring a little bit of the competitive experience to the paying customers. And that’s exponentially easier when coaches and players want to be interviewed.

Thus, the reason a lot of sports writers don’t enjoy postgame press conferences after a loss. It is human nature that people are much more willing to discuss anything and everything when they’re in a good mood. They’re also a lot more patient with our stupid questions when they’re riding high on a victory.

Still, I’ve had some fantastic postgame conversations with both winners and losers. I’ll be honest in saying the best ones usually had little to do with the media’s insightful questions, and more to do with the subject being willing to share personal details in a public forum. In those moments when athletes and coaches make the choice to share something raw and real, those of us who spend our lives on the sideline are invited into the experience.

The best post-competition press conference I’ve ever been a part of was one conducted in a ridiculously crowded mixed zone by two-time Olympic medalist Hannah Kearney in Sochi, Russia.

In 2010, I watched as she upset the home-town favorite and defending Olympic champion to win gold in Vancouver. In 2014, it was Kearney, the favorite and defending champion, who would lose. Tears streaming down her face, she fielded every question with such authenticity it brought several members of the media to tears.

Her pain was palpable, and she shared it completely.

I learned many lessons about how to deal with adversity and struggles in my own life because she was so generous in sharing her experiences.

More often, however, postgame interviews, especially press conferences, are not honest retrospectives from coaches or players. Instead, they’re predictable recitations of sports clichés, team mantras or superficial analysis meant to end the interview as quickly as possible. Again, I confess that oftentimes our questions are also cliché, superficial and even annoying. But the best understand this dance we do and try to remember that they’re not talking to us reporters. They’re talking to the fans who share their joy and heartbreak in a relationship unlike anything else in society.

The best athletes and coaches appreciate any opportunity to communicate with their fans, to share with them.

Which brings me to Saturday night’s postgame press conference with three members of the heartbroken University of Utah football team. I’ve seen a lot of gut-wrenching losses in my 18 years in sports, and that was among the toughest I’ve witnessed. So it didn’t surprise me that the players didn’t have much to say — or a lot of patience with our questions about how they felt or what they’d lost on that field.

But after we’d all filed our stories, there was some discussion amongst media members about how running back Joe Williams specifically handled the unenviable task of fielding our questions. What he did was answer the first four questions with “We’re on to Colorado” or “Colorado.” I didn’t even finish my question before he said, “Colorado.”

The other two players — defensive end Hunter Dimick and punter Mitch Wishnowsky — and coach Kyle Whittingham did their best to fulfill their responsibility while visibly and understandably gutted by the 30-28 loss that essentially ended their Pac-12 title hopes.

The discussion amongst media members, which carried into some conversations with fans, was that Williams’ response was immature. I wasn’t so sure then, and I’m less sure 24 hours later. I give wide latitude to how elite athletes behave when they lose. With that said, I have massive respect for competitors like Whittingham who never fail to talk with us graciously and honestly in the toughest situations.

I just have a hard time criticizing a player for expressing heartbreak. I mean, as writers, we beg for real reactions. Williams isn’t alone in choosing to keep his feelings about failure and disappointment to himself. A lot of athletes do it.

I used to be a lot more critical of it. But I have read several athlete accounts of the soul-searing pain that comes with failing to reach a life-long goal, and I’ve changed my mind. If an athlete wants to keep his pain private, I feel like that’s his prerogative. Most writers learn early that every story is not theirs to tell.

But I decided to offer my thoughts about this subject, and Saturday’s press conference, because I want athletes to know what they’re forfeiting when they make that decision. You may make massive sacrifices to achieve the success that puts you in my path. But you didn’t get there alone. Countless people join you on your journey, even if you have no idea they’re out there.

Some are alumni of the school you represent. They support fundraising drives that pay for scholarships, buildings and programs you enjoy.

Some are fans who scrimp and save to purchase season tickets in hopes of sharing a sliver of your glory. They sit through rainstorms, stand in line hoping to get a high five and wear your number because what you can do on the field makes them feel more capable of dealing with the challenges in their own lives.

And while talking to reporters after a disappointment can be agonizing, keep in mind a lot of athletes (especially women) would do anything to bask in the attention we lavish on certain sports.

Nobody will argue that sports, especially college athletics, have the ability to enrich and inspire a community. So when you choose not to share the painful parts, you deprive a lot of people who’ve supported your ability to chase a dream of the entire experience.