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Central » Sports » Jesters Quart

Saturday, September 29, 2007

For Coach and Columnist, a Double Fault

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It was going to take one hell of an effort to knock that "Leave Britney Alone" she-male off the viral video throne, but you have to give Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy credit for trying.

His petulant verbal assault on Jenni Carlson, a columnist for The Oklahoman who wrote a hit piece on a benched quarterback named Bobby Reid, ruled the airwaves on ESPN, and filled the inboxes of countless sports fans once it was digitized.

It was an epic performance, but I can only assume it was a performance and not an honest reaction to the column — any coach with a Midwestern-sized beef with a journalist would have had it out with said journalist in the privacy of his own office, flanked by the most hot-headed assistants he could yank off the practice field. The writer would sit in the room surrounded by a sense of creeping dread, like when Danny Ocean slowly scanned his holding cell in Terry Benedict's casino, observing, "No cameras in here, huh?"

It would be quick, it would be loud and it would shake that writer to his or her very soul. In other words, it would be effective.

But that wasn't the plan for Gundy. The plan was to administer a public flogging of a female sportswriter, a one-way conversation where one party gets to have all the screaming. To the general public, it played like Gundy‘s blustery audition for a Mamet play about college football. To the locker room, it was coach taking on the haters and defending the honor of his team.

To a sportswriter like me, it was the kind of scenario that plays out in your mind's eye nearly every time you have a controversial take about a team, coach or player, especially in-season. What happens the next time you're face-to-face in the locker room or the media center? Will they ignore it? Will they call you out on it? If faced with the kind of snarly dog that was slipped on Carlson in Oklahoma, what would your reaction be? Would you try and argue your stance? Would you take the bait and holler back? Or would you be so overwhelmed by the unpredictable fury of the moment that you look resemble an Easter Island statue holding a tape recorder?

I've never had the public dress-down, but I've gotten the coaches' office inquisition before.

My most notable instance was during the D.C. sniper shootings a few years back. I was covering high-school sports in Fairfax County, Virginia. The shootings had spread over into Northern VA, so public school officials began cancelling outdoor events, including football games. Since the southern part of the state was still playing ball under Friday night lights, the Northern Virginia teams had to find a way to continue their season, lest they begin forfeitures or a physically debilitating condensed schedule.

The decision was made to play a week of football games at undisclosed locations around Virginia in order to keep student-athletes out of harm's way: military bases, distant high schools, non-descript athletic facilities. The plan was to tell the parents where the games would be, but keep the media out of the loop — Lord knows the Fourth Estate might be in cahoots with Lee Boyd Malvo.

It was a silly, reactionary plan, made sillier by the fact that the snipers actually moved their base of operations that weekend downstate — literally. The Northern Virginia football officials had relocated games into the line of fire. One secondary school I covered had played their game and followed with a team dinner at a Ponderosa Steakhouse in the Central Virginia city of Ashland; hours after they left, the snipers shot a 37-year-old man in the parking lot of that same restaurant.

I broke the story about that team being put near harm's way, and wrote a column blasting the school system for its decision. That led to the head of high-school athletics in the country telling me over the phone that I was "dead" to him, and soon it led me into the coaches' office at the secondary school for a showdown.

After post-game interviews were completed one night, the head coach asked that I remain in his office; an assistant coach or two lingered behind as well. The next 20 minutes were a bellowing debate between a coach who was incensed with what was published and a writer fighting to make him understand the journalistic value in reporting it.

It raged for a bit before we finally agreed to disagree and I walked away. Done and done, and not a second of it made it onto the Internet.

Carlson wasn't so lucky. No matter what she writes for the rest of her career, Gundy's tirade will be echoing in the background.

Public sentiment wasn't exactly swung her way after the attack, either. Reading the beginning of her column explains why:

"Bobby Reid stood near the team charters last Friday night, using his cell phone, eating his boxed meal.

It would've been normal post-game activity but for one thing.

His mother was feeding him chicken."

She went on to make the case that Reid was benched by his coaches because ... well, because he's a mama's boy:

"There's something to be said for not being a malcontent, but you can almost see Reid shrugging his shoulders as he says those words. Does he have the fire in his belly?

Or does he want to be coddled, babied, perhaps even fed chicken?"

Let's forget, for a moment, Carlson's dime-store psychology in regards to a personal moment between a student-athlete and his mother (although one that Rajika Reid, the quarterback's mother, denies ever occurred). If Carlson did the responsible thing and asked them why mommy was flying the airplane into the hanger, it didn't make it into the column; we can only assume that Carlson took the coward's way out and used the moment to embarrass the kid rather than use it for any deeper understanding about his emotional make-up.

Let's instead concentrate on the biggest mistake Carlson made in her hack-tastic piece: she brought the mother into it.

You never bring the mother into it unless she belongs there, like Bonnie Lindros did back in the early 1990s. Rajika Reid didn't belong there; when Carlson included her as Exhibit A in her case against Bobby Reid's machismo, it undercut her legitimate critiques of his play.

Carlson's a pro — with the evidence (or hearsay) at hand, she could have sliced up Reid without using his mother as a narrative device. In a column muddled by poor decisions, that was the poorest.

Carlson and Gundy probably aren't going to be sharing a laugh about this situation over a few brews anytime soon, and that's a shame. I'd love to watch the next YouTube clip in which they dissect his calculated grandstanding and her ill-conceived prose.

While feeding each other chicken, of course.

SportsFan MagazineGreg Wyshynski is also a weekly columnist for SportsFan Magazine. His columns appear every Saturday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Greg at [email protected].

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