By Amanda Johnson
Joe Mussatto always knew he loved two things — writing and sports. After graduating from a small high school that didn’t provide many opportunities for journalism, he attended the University of Oklahoma, and ultimately, discovered his passion for sports journalism.
Mussatto began working at The Oklahoma Daily, OU’s student newspaper, his second semester freshman year. He initially was a sports reporter covering softball but worked his way up to sports editor, and eventually, editor-in-chief his senior year. After graduating in May 2016 with a degree in journalism, he moved to Lexington, Kentucky, to work for sports website SEC Country until it shut down in June.
Today, Mussatto works as a beat writer for OU football, men’s basketball and softball at The Oklahoman — the same paper he grew up reading. Although he has only been there since August, he believes, for now, it is the perfect fit for him.
Amanda Johnson: I really enjoyed your piece “OU at the forefront of psychology in college athletics.” Can you tell me a little bit about the background of this story, and how you came up with it?
Joe Mussatto: We started talking about doing a story on (Psychological Resources for OU Student-Athletes) … because I think Lincoln Riley had mentioned it earlier in the year. We knew a little bit about it, but we wanted to go into it more. Rachel Bachman at The Wall Street Journal did a thorough story on the rise of sports psychology and college athletics, and OU was a school she briefly touched on. We had this idea, and then thought, ‘OK we really need to do this because it’s like a thing, people are writing about it, and I think people are going to be interested in it.’ I think when you have a story on a national level there’s always a way to break it down a little bit on a local level to kind of go all in.
AJ: Did the writing process for this story change at all as you researched it further?
JM: The writing process changed a little bit once I did my interviews because after I talked to Cody Commander, he told me OU was, to his knowledge, the first athletic department to hire a sports psychologist. So that was kind of what I led with — the destigmatization of it and also the rise of it in college athletics. Then, I was able to go down to the nut graph of it and tell, ‘Here’s why you’re reading about this.’ It’s happening everywhere, but OU is kind of the first school that went all in on this, and they have the largest staff housed in the athletics department. I just went in from there more on a general line. But, I wanted at the beginning to be able to tell OU fans or anyone reading this locally, ‘Here’s how it affects OU.’ Once you have them hooked on that, I feel like you can go into the broader subject.
AJ: Were there any challenges you faced writing this story?
JM: Because of (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) and certain laws, OU can’t give me a list of all the players that come in and see them. So, after football practices, I would try to pull three or four guys aside after they were done in bigger interviews and ask them if they had ever gone to (Psychological Resources for OU Student-Athletes) and if they took advantage of the services. It was hard to get them to really talk about it, because I don’t know if its the stigma around mental health or just not everyone being comfortable talking about that.
AJ: How do you usually approach writing feature stories?
JM: It’s tough because there’s different themes and subjects and materials you are working with. With this story, it was more like I had all this information and wanted to get it out. It’s a feature in a sense that I’m not writing about the team necessarily or what they did on Saturday score-wise … but it’s different than sitting down and writing a profile on an athlete. I think the writing style is a little different for something like this. I’m a little more straightforward with it, and I don’t feel the need to play around with the language. With the subject I’m writing about … I would consider this piece a little more of a trend story, but I think reporting is the most important part of any feature. If you haven’t done the reporting, if you don’t have the details, if you don’t have answers to all the questions the reader might have — writing can’t make up for that. I think good reporting supplements good writing, but if you don’t have the details to begin with, no matter how flowery your language is or how creative you get, you can’t really make up for holes and things you can’t answer.
AJ: What do you hope to accomplish in your career, and where do you see yourself down the road?
JM: I think about that a lot. I don’t know if I have one specific answer, but I guess my goal is to tell good stories that people care about. Personally, I like to get away from the games, things like who the backup tight end is. That stuff is so important on a beat, and fans are crazy and want to know all that information. But, I think the goal in my career is to write stories that bridge the gap between die-hard sports fans and people who don’t really care about sports but want to read about an athlete who has an incredible story. I like writing about the people who play the sport more than the sport itself. That’s what I want to keep doing in my career, even if it’s not sports, I just like finding interesting people who do interesting things and telling their story.
AJ: Any advice for young journalists beginning their careers?
JM: The best advice is probably to say yes to anything. I think it’s pretty hard to get started in this business if you’re totally set on something in particular. Most likely, that one thing you really want, that dream job you’re imagining, unless you’re just insanely talented with an amazing amount of luck, it’s not going to happen for your first job. There’s absolutely no shame to start your career wherever and to write about whatever. Once you get in and work hard, those opportunities are going to come. You don’t know when they are going to come, where they are going to come from, but they are going to come.