Breaking Urban’s rules: The coach and the quote

Yes, I know there’s basketball going on — Tennessee and Ohio State locked up in a good battle in the Sweet 16 as I’m writing.

But I’ve also been following a sports media controversy involving University of Florida football coach Urban Meyer and a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel this week. Here’s a link to the blog of the reporter, Jeremy Fowler, where you can link to a video of the exchange between him and Meyer and read the quote from a story written by Fowler that sparked it all. (And on second thought, to call it an exchange is probably inaccurate — unless you call a one-way tongue-lashing an exchange.)

The short version is that Meyer was angered by Fowler’s article which quoted Gator wide receiver Deonte Thompson on the contrast betweeen the playing styles of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who ended his college career in January, and the player who will probably succeed him at that position, John Brantley.

In the course of the interview, Thompson let the comment drop that unlike Tebow, Brantley plays the position like a “real quarterback.” It’s a comment which, in my opinion, was not intended as a criticism of Tebow, but simply referred to the fact that Tebow’s exceptional running ability and odd throwing motion did make him an unusual quarterback.

But the story didn’t contain that context and Meyer took it as disrespectful, and as you can see in the video, lets the reporter hear about it, calling him a “bad guy,” and threatening to cut off the newspaper’s access to the team.

Response to this has been interesting, and has been determined by how one feels about Meyer (Gator fans love him, fans of rival schools not so much) and the news media (and of course, everyone on the Internet hates the evil news media).

I see fault on both sides. Meyer is well-known for being intense and pretty tightly-wound. And no different from most coaches of big-time college football programs, he rivals the government of China in his desire to control access to information. Follow this link to a segment of the Dan Patrick Show in which Mike Bianchi, a respected print journalist who has covered Florida sports for years, talks about the problematic relationship between Meyer and the media.

So is the transition from one starting quarterback to another and what teammates think about that any of the reporter’s business? It’s a fair subject for a news story, so of course it is. Could the reporter have handled the particular comment with more sensitivity? Another yes.

I don’t know how old Fowler is, but he appears to be fairly young — compared to me, anyway. And I’ve come to believe over the years that sometimes reporters young and old don’t think about the consquences of what they write or broadcast. And I’m not saying that you should avoid reporting stories that are going to make sources angry. In the process of reporting the news, that’s sometime unavoidable.

But another thing I’ve learned with age is to treat sources — like Meyer — who know how to “play the game” with the media differently from the less experienced sources who may not realize how their comments are going to look in print. It’s not a bad thing to save people from themselves sometimes.

If I were in Fowler’s shoes I would have given the player the opportunity to clarify his comment. “What do you mean by a ‘real quarterback’? Do you mean like a traditional quarterback?” And he might have even asked Meyer to his reaction to that comment or to the difference between the two quarterbacks.

Meyer probably still wouldn’t have liked the story. But he would have had much less justification for sticking his finger in the face of another professional person and calling him a “bad guy.”

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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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2 Responses to Breaking Urban’s rules: The coach and the quote

  1. Joe says:

    Doc, I don't know how much good any clarification would have done because the quote ran in several papers. I think Meyer was oversensitive because of the criticism regarding Tebow and his prospects as an NFL quarterback. After all, if Tebow is considered to be a less than adequate pro, what does that tell recruits? What sort of fodder does that supply opposing coaches on the trail?It's probably no coincidence that Meyer went after the beat writer of the biggest paper that covers his team. Also in my estimation the youngest writer on the beat and maybe the least likely to defend himself directly to the coach.If I were Fowler, I would have asked Meyer what, if anything, was wrong with the quote. Was it inaccurate? As you mentioned, the context could be misconstrued, but I didn't think Fowler did anything to try and sensationalize the comment.

  2. Keith says:

    Good points, Joe. In reverse order: I don't think Fowler was intentionally trying to sensationalize the story either, as he has been accused of by numerous Internet posters. And I think I too would have asked Meyer what the problem was with the story. That's what I usually tried to do with readers who had a problem with something in the paper — start with "Was it inaccurate or unfair? Or did you just not like it?" Just because you didn't like it doesn't necessarily mean it was unfair. And I agree that Meyer is probably hypersensitive about comments regarding Tebow. The fact that several papers ran the Thompson comment is, to me, a mitigating factor for Fowler, but he still could have put himself in a more defensible position with a more nuanced treatment of it. Thanks for your insightful comment.

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