Q&A: CMU journalism alumnus discusses new position as Detroit Free Press sports editor

Detroit Free Press sports editor Kirkland Crawford is interviewed Feb. 10 over Zoom.

CMU Journalism alumnus Kirkland Crawford quickly realized that becoming a professional athlete was never in the cards, so he found a different way to stay close to sports. 

From an early age, Crawford knew he wanted to be a sports journalist after noticing the reporters, radio broadcasters and TV personnel lining the sidelines at basketball games.

Now, the Detroit native is leading the place he idolized growing up -- the Detroit Free Press sports department. 

For Crawford, the last six weeks as sports editor have been a whirlwind, from a blockbuster trade of former  Detroit Lions franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford to a three-week pause of Michigan Men’s Basketball due to COVID-19.

Still, the 2006 CMU graduate is taking the opportunity to learn the personalities of his staff and continue the legacy of the industry leaders who came before him.

Crawford sat down with Central Michigan Life to discuss settling into his new role and what led him to fall in love with journalism.

How has it been transitioning from your role as deputy editor to editor?

I have had to learn the staff, so that has been refreshing. I am learning more about my staff. Before I was the good cop. Now, I might have to be the bad cop too. That is taking a learning period.

The bigger adjustment is administrative things. And a big shock here – the sports guy doing a sports analogy – but it is sort of like being the manager of a baseball team where you have different people with different roles within an organization. You’re trying to get the best out of everybody no matter what their roles may be.

As you can imagine with all the sports we cover, some of the roles are different. The challenge becomes figuring out, not just that person’s role but their personality and what their limitations may or may not be. It is also understanding the place where each person on the team wants to get to and figuring out better ways to get there.

One of my colleagues said, “You spend a lot of time doing neither sports nor editing.” There is a little bit in that.

Take us through your many experiences at the Detroit Free Press and your ascension into your current position.

It starts in high school. The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit public schools in concert with the Ford Motor Company fostered this high school journalism program. At the time, there were 15 or 16 high schools in Detroit that had a relationship with FREEP. So, once every couple of weeks, the high school newspaper staffs would go down to the FREEP and help produce each page within a special section. 

That reignited a passion I had for journalism. I wanted to be a part of journalism since I was a little kid as many people in this field find themselves. 

I was able to get to Central Michigan University through the Lem Tucker Journalism Scholarship which is an incredible opportunity. I was blessed to go to CMU through the equivalent of an athletic scholarship. That was why I was so involved with extracurriculars like CM Life, MHTV and News Central. 

I graduated from college and eventually crawled my way back to FREEP as the Tigers were good for the first time in a generation. I was brought in to help. As things went along, I helped fill one role or another within the sports department – from freelance writing to writing and editing. I was one of the first web producers in the department. I have had a hand in what our website covers and looks like since 2007.

There is so much that we cover, and it has been fun to be apart of it for as long as I have been. You just work your way up the ladder.

What led to your interest in journalism when you were younger?

The initial spark goes back to when I was 6 or 7 years old and watching basketball. I innately believed that I wasn’t going to be a professional athlete at that point. However, I noticed that there was a table along the sideline that people were sitting at.

I figured that I’m not going to be on the court, but those people have really good seats. How could I get there? My father explained to me that they were newspaper writers, radio broadcasters and television networks. He said they get paid to watch the game and tell people what’s going on.

I went, “Woah. Let’s do that.”

That was the beginning of the spark of wanting to be a part of the journalism business. So, I started reading. At a young age, I would walk to the store and buy both Detroit newspapers. We were lucky enough to have two.

That got me closer to the teams that I liked. I learned more about my teams. I started to like to read and like the people who were writing. That love kept growing upon itself. By the time I got to high school, I knew that I wanted to be a part of journalism.

What other areas of your life have sports had an impact on?

Sports has had a great impact on my life outside of the fact that it is my livelihood. It is the reason I can keep a roof over my head.

My love for sports and journalism drove me to CMU. It got me into school with the Lem Tucker scholarship, a legacy I hold dear. If I don’t go to CMU, I don’t meet my wife or have my two kids. 

Sports and journalism are the conduits to almost everything good that’s happened to me.

What is it like to look back at your time at CMU?

My years at CMU were some of the best four years of my life. Many of the important people in my life still today, I met at CMU. It was learning about yourself while learning about other people. I think 80 percent of the weddings I’ve been to have been people from CMU. You're able to forge life-long partnerships and relationships with people because you're going through this experience together not just going to PSY 101. It is about understanding what adulthood is like.

I was able to associate myself with people all of the state – from The Thumb to the West Side, to up north, the UP and all places in between. I think that’s valuable. I grew up in the inner city and brought that experience to the table, but I knew nothing about growing up in a town with a McDonald’s and two flashing red lights. Those experiences are one’s I look back on and think that I wouldn’t know half of what I do now. I tell college students to savor those experiences as long as it takes them. Don’t rush it. You’re going to be an adult way longer than a college student.

Are there places you like to visit when you return to Mount Pleasant?

I hate to be the “back in the day” guy when there wasn’t a Menards or a Tiki bar. I was among the first people to live in Copper Beach when that was a new thing. Is there a place I like to visit? No, not really.

I like walking through what’s new and remembering what was there. I still call it Rose Arena. I know it is McGuirk Arena, but I walk through that renovated building and remember there was nothing there. It used to be a dank hallway. I remember how hilly the field was at Kelly/Shorts Stadium and how dangerous it was crossing Broomfield Street from Thorpe Hall on cold, slick February morning. I do more nostalgic flashbacks, I guess, and seeing how much the area has changed and grown.

Do you personally follow CMU sports?

That’s part of the gig. I like that my responsibility is to know what is going on with the sports scene in Mount Pleasant. 

When something happens at CMU, we try to let our entire audience know about it. I wish we could do it at a better rate, but then I am reminded that I can’t just mention CMU. 

What is it like covering the sports teams that you also root for?

There has to be a way you separate what you do, but I am also human. I want the teams here to do well. I also have to be honest enough not to sugarcoat the facts if they’re not doing well. Bad is bad. The Red Wings and Pistons have struggled. That’s a fact. The Tigers the last four years have struggled. That’s a fact. The Lions were not good this year. Ultimately, facts aren’t always fair.

Do you want those teams to do better? Of course. The separation point is that I am not rooting for them play to play, because I am observing and trying to see if there’s a story to tell. I watch sports differently. I still like to be wowed, but I am not kicking the dog when Team A loses. I am busy figuring out what, why and how it happened. That way, our readers can kick their proverbial dogs – not that you should ever kick dogs.

That’s how I’m wired when watching sports. It is sometimes hard turning it off. For example, during the Super Bowl, I wanted to enjoy myself as a fan, but I ask myself, “What does this mean?” That’s the blessing and curse of working in sports.

Are there any athletes you enjoy watching for the wow factor you mentioned enjoying?

From a Detroit fan’s standpoint, I think I am eager to see what our prospects do for the Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings. There will be a high level of intrigue with the Lions this season and the team’s seventh overall pick. The Tigers are figuring out which pitching prospect is going to take the next leap. It is the same with the Pistons. It is unfortunate about Killian Hayes’s hip injury, but it will be interesting to see what Sekou Demboya has. How good is Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey? Are they players to build a team around? Even with the Detroit Pistons, we are watching the maturation of Dylan Larkin and wondering if Anthony Mantha is going to figure things out. 

I am waiting to see if these prospects come to fruition or fill out on the promise of potential they have. That is what Detroit sports fans have to look forward to. If those things work out, what does that translate to? Does it translate to a contender, a championship-level team? If it does, that’d be a cool story. In a sense, these teams would go from zero to hero.

As we’ve been researching and trying to put together, this as low of period of success that Detroit sports teams have ever had. It is starting to become a sustained period of futility quite frankly. It is an interesting door to walk through as a sports editor trying to get people to read articles on teams that are struggling.

The Lions recently traded franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford away to the Los Angeles Rams. What is it like to watch a guy you’ve covered so long move on with another franchise?

It is high action and high adrenaline. It is what keeps me going. “This is happening” – that’s the phrase we use in the department. It is a frenzy of phone calls and emails.

We got word of the Stafford trade at 10 p.m. at night. That next day’s edition was going to be finished at 10:30 p.m. We were prepared for the “what if,” but when it happens, you can’t tell the clock “OK, stop for 20 minutes.”

You talk about your “commitment to your audience.” What does that mean?

I would say it means we’re going to tell you what we know, what we believe and why we believe it. What I know is that our audience is extremely smart. All the sports teams in Michigan are not fly-by-night teams. They didn’t just pop up around here. The loyalty for all Michigan sports teams has been passed down from generation to generation. We can’t treat our audience like we know more than they do.

There are thousands of different outlets to get the final score of a game. What fans can’t get from an instant push alert is why things happened, how they are happening, why a decision was made, and why a guy was traded. It is our job to tell them what we know and tell them what we think is happening based off our ability to have that kind of access. That’s the responsibility we have.