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Football Commentary: Coaches argue with press corps

Ken Fowler | Thursday, September 27, 2007

Charlie Weis had a bit of a moment last week.

Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune wrote a lengthy “analysis” in last Thursday’s paper, which asked the reader to imagine he were Charlie Weis and explored what Weis was thinking going into the Michigan State game.

In reality, it was a column – which is fine. Its toughest words went like this:

“You talked a good game about nasty, but until now you weren’t doing anything to actually build it. You can point the finger at offensive line coach John Latina, but his lines at Ole Miss were considered among the best-coached and toughest in the SEC.”

Weis took offense and answered Hansen’s unrelated question at a news conference the next day with a quick retort and a jab at Hansen.

“Well, would you like for me to answer this in the first person, second person or third person?” Weis asked. “Well, you probably have that answer. So we’ll move on. Next question.”

The exchange was available for all to see via an on-line video, but the athletic department omitted the words from the “official” transcript posted on-line. Associate Athletic Director John Heisler said Tuesday that Notre Dame routinely edits its transcripts, provided by a third party, for clarity’s sake when specific questions would not make sense for those reading.

While official transcripts should include complete, unedited quotations for honesty’s sake – and to retain the legitimacy of the transcript itself – there is a separate, important point raised by the exchange.

Weis is either right or wrong; there’s no need to ignore the conflict of opinions.

Such conflicts between coaches and media happen, and they are far from rare. Leaders in pressure-packed jobs get mad all the time. Sometimes their anger is justified; sometimes it’s not. Always, however, it’s entertaining. As a friend of mine said earlier this week, people love you when you’re human. Humans have a tendency to get mad, react stupidly and then repent. That’s life.

But there are also times when anger is justified.

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy screamed at and belittled columnist Jenni Carlson Saturday for reporting that backup quarterback Bobby Reid’s mother was feeding the player chicken the previous week after the Cowboys’ 41-23 loss to Troy. Carlson’s argument was that the episode was just the latest example of Reid being soft.

“Does he have the fire in his belly?” the column read. “Or does he want to be coddled, babied, perhaps even fed chicken?

“That scene in the parking lot last week had no bearing on the Cowboys changing quarterbacks, and yet, it said so much about Reid. A 21-year-old letting his mother feed him in public? Most college kids, much less college football players, would just as soon be seen running naked across campus.”

So Carlson made a claim – she attacked who Reid is, far deeper than only attacking his play. She intertwined the two, and Gundy was none too pleased.

“That article had to have been written by a person that doesn’t have a child and has never had a child that’s had their heart broken and come home upset,” Gundy steamed at Carlson in the post-game news conference. “… Here’s all that kid did: He goes to class, he’s respectful to the media, he’s respectful to the public.

“And he’s not a professional athlete, and he doesn’t deserve to be kicked when he’s down.”

And then Gundy turned and attacked who Carlson is.

“If you have a child some day, you’ll understand how it feels, but you obviously don’t have a child. I do,” he screamed. “… If you want to go after an athlete, one of my athletes, you go after one who doesn’t do the right things. You don’t downgrade [denigrate] him because he does everything right and may not play as well on Saturday. And you let us make that decision. That’s why I don’t read the newspaper. Because it’s garbage. …

“Come after me. I’m a man, I’m forty. I’m not a kid. Write something about me or our coaches. Don’t write about a kid that does everything right, whose heart’s broken, and then say the coaches said he was scared. That ain’t true.”

The fallout has been a national mocking of Gundy for his over-the-top response, but isn’t that a bit self-serving?

A writer communicates with printed words. When they are vitriolic and petty, should a coach, who communicates with the spoken word, be able to respond in kind?

If we extol the virtues of an unhindered freedom of speech, shouldn’t we also support the freedom to mock, lambaste, ostracize and berate you for voicing an ignorant, intellectually dishonest, mind-numbing and poorly argued opinion?

When asked about what is acceptable criticism of athletes and coaches Wednesday, Weis tried to strip away the argument over journalism’s ethics. He took a simpler approach to Gundy’s response.

“I know all the coaches of America will go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ And the journalists of America will go, ‘No, no no,'” Weis said. “But in reality, as a dad, that would really bother me.”

Weis was wrong for his reaction to Hansen’s piece, but he’s right here.

Whether or not it’s ethical to censor columnists or criticize the integrity of student-athletes, the words have an effect. But the debate over what is fair to print is just as important.

The question is, are we ready to make an honest debate?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Ken Fowler at kfowler1@nd.edu