The coach vs. the columnist

There’s plenty to fault on both sides of the war of words between Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy and a newspaper columnist.

For background, here’s the column in question written by Jenni Carlson of The Daily Oklahoman, about an OSU football player and Gundy’s response to it in a post-game press conference last weekend:

First, the column was certainly no Pulitzer Prize winner. I’m the faculty adviser for a small college newspaper and I would certainly sit down and have a talk with any student reporter who turned in a piece like this. It’s poorly sourced — I’m always uncomfortable with phrases like “rumors and rumblings” and unattributed “backstories.” That’s questionable journalism that just gives aid and comfort to knee-jerk media haters, who have been out in force on this one.

But poor reporting is no excuse for the coach’s screaming fit, which detracted from his team’s victory and the fine performance of the quarterback who DID play, and made the coach the focus of attention. I don’t care what the circumstances are, wild-eyed gesticulating and yelling in a public forum is not a good look for someone who wants to be taken seriously as a professional person.

I am uncomfortable with some of the personal criticism, bordering on amateur psychoanalysis, of the player. (What did she mean by his mother “feeding him chicken,” anyway?) But I’ve seen and heard much worse abuse of a college player from fans on message boards and on talk radio. Maybe it’s just a problem when the so-called MSM do it.

But the reasons why a coach in a major college football program chose to play or not play a particular player — especially one as high-profile as the quarterback — are legitimate subjects for media coverage. And as poorly executed as it might have been, the piece appears to be based on facts the reporter has gathered and on her own observation, which is appropriate and even desirable in a column.

If those facts aren’t really facts, most newspapers want to know that and are willing to correct inaccuracies. You can’t do that if the source, who has told you that 75 percent of your story is wrong, won’t be specific about what’s wrong. (In my experience in both journalism and public relations, that translates into, “I really can’t dispute your facts but I hate what you wrote and I REALLY hate that you wrote about it at all.”) The coach is wrong – if he’s going to be credible, and if he’s going to question the reporter’s credibility, he does have to address the inaccuracies.

Criticism of a player is always a touchy issue. I’ve always believed that criticism should avoid the personal — unless the circumstances make it impossible to ignore — and focus on the player’s performance. I also think the standards to which players should be held depend on the level of play. I’ve never criticized the play of an individual high school player – although I have reported when that player’s mistake may have determined the outcome of the game. Professional athletes, who earn thousands of the fans’ hard-earned dollars each time they step on the field or the court, should be held to the highest standards.

College athletes are somewhere in between, depending on the sport and on the level of “amateurism” in the program. At Oklahoma State’s level of play, a fair number of these players are using their “student-athlete” status and their scholarship primarily to train for a professional career. (If the young quarterback thinks THIS media attention was aggressive and over-the-top, I hope he never ends up playing for the New York Giants/Jets or Chicago Bears.)

I’ve been amused at the comments of the coach and his defenders that want to portray these men, some of whom are actual adults of legal age, as fresh-faced young “kids” unschooled in the ways of the world and just playing for the glory of their university and an afternoon of vigorous exercise. They don’t deserve any criticism, they say.

Please. Big-time college football is a multi-million dollar enterprise which depends in part for its success on the exposure and publicity provided by the news media. Sometimes the news is good and sometimes it’s bad – sort of like the real world. And it’s the news media’s job to find out what happened and tell that story – whatever it is – to the public. Yes, it doesn’t always get told well.

But in this case, the attitude of the coach reminds me of playwright Noel Coward’s famous comment about critics: “I like criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.”


About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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