Nobody listens in screamfests
This week's example that the world is changing — much too rapidly and, sadly, for the worse — started in Oklahoma.
Newspaper columnist Jenni Carlson criticized Oklahoma State quarterback Bobby Reid, and OSU head coach Mike Gundy used his postgame media conference to defend his player and rebuke Carlson.
Not so long ago, this incident would have remained a local story. When tempers eased, the coach and the columnist and perhaps the quarterback would have sat down for a rational discussion. Apologies might have followed. Maybe in Oklahoma that will still happen. Maybe.
Unfortunately, in our changing world, the minute Gundy opened his mouth in front of live cameras and microphones, this story entered the national scream. I'm not blaming Gundy. He didn't intend this. But we live in a YouTube world now, and that's what happened.
The one good thing this episode presents is an opportunity to discuss some important issues. For one, to what extent should college athletes — men and women in that transitional phase between being teenagers at home and young adults living on their own — be subjected to public criticism? Related to that, what should be the responsibilities of coaches and media, as well as administrators, players and their parents and fans? Also, what's the real purpose of college athletics and how can we get back to it?
The bad thing is, almost nobody is discussing those issues. They're not discussing anything. Everybody is screaming. And pointing fingers. And building bunkers in which anybody who agrees with me 100 percent is welcome and all the rest of you can go to Hades.
It's a national sickness. Our politics are pure poison. We used to be able to turn to sports for relief. But the games are fast losing their fun in the avalanche of vile discourse around them.
On the whole, the relationship between reporters and coaches seldom has been perfect. A reporter is supposed to tell the whole story, the good and the bad. Coaches would rather only the good be told.
By and large, though, they used to work fairly well together. I think a big part of that is because reporters and coaches took time to actually develop relationships. That doesn't mean they became buddies, but they did get to know each other. A reporter might sit down in the coach's office and chat for
an hour, with half or less of the conversation being about the program. Or they might small-talk on a bus trip, or in an airport waiting room, or maybe they would get together for lunch or to play golf.
Daresay, they frequently developed a working level of trust that benefited all parties. A coach could truthfully assess his program, his players, and rely on the reporter to be fair. The reporter knew that as long as he was fair, he could rely on the coach not to lead him astray.
And when conflicts arose, as inevitably conflicts do in any relationship, the coach and reporter had a solid foundation on which to resolve them.
That simply doesn't happen much anymore. Part of the reason, particularly at larger programs, is there are too many reporters to make such one-on-one interaction feasible.
But there's more. Too much is at stake.
Billions of dollars churn through college sports. The old college try is no longer enough. It's not enough for players. Not enough for their coaches. Not enough for the coaches' bosses. Not enough for the fans. Not enough for the media.
The pressure to win now and win big is way too intense.
When things go wrong, fans want to know why. Media ask why. Coaches are reluctant to explain why.
Anything that's not positive becomes a negative. Negatives are distractions. Negatives are dangerous to winning, to the coach's future. Distrust enters, and a protective shell goes up. Protective shells limit information. They're dangerous to getting good stories, to the reporter's future. More distrust.
Meanwhile, the fans are howling. For better players. For more wins. For more information.
They have their own opinions. And they want those opinions heard. They used to boo and argue over a beer at the local bar. Then came talk radio. Then came the Internet.
And now we have a nationwide sports barroom brawl over a story that 10 years ago would have had regional legs at best, that 20 years ago would have resulted in a clear-the-air meeting, that 30 years ago likely would have been written differently, with cooperation from the coach and better understanding from the writer.
This is not the Internet's fault.
The coach is screaming. The media are screaming back. The fans are screaming.
It's like the last voice screaming wins.
And absolutely nothing gets resolved, because nobody is really listening.
is executive sports editor/columnist with the Journal Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (309) 686-3216.