Thursday, November 18, 2004


Please no Mo, ESPN

First things first. Greetings from California. Upper 70s and sunny with a little haze today.

Second thing. If you're following sports at all right now, you've probably heard that Maurice Clarett, the gifted running back who helped Ohio State win the national championship in 2002, is back in the news, accusing the university of multiple NCAA violations, including setting up players with cars and money. ESPN has run report after report about this. CNN has called for Ohio State to give itself the so-called death penalty, shutting down its athletic operations for a year.

Now, I'm not objective about this. I grew up an Ohio State fan. My father went there, and I spent a lot of Saturdays watching the Scarlet and Gray in the Horseshoe. I fully admit that I tend to look the other way when Ohio State supposedly does something wrong. I do the same for my own alma maters, Northwestern and the University of Texas.

But . . . I also studied journalism in college. It's a career that I never pursued. To be honest, I completely detested it. I didn't like most of the classes I took, didn't care for a lot of the professors. It bothered me that my fellow students thought it was OK to pursue semi-ethical means to "get the story". I got yelled at by a professor when I said I wouldn't steal files from public offices to "get the story", even if I knew that "the story" might be inside.

Whatever. Water under the bridge. I guess what I'm beating around the bush toward is this point: I have second guessed virtually every decision that I've made since the fifth grade. It's part of my character. I certainly second guessed the decision to blow off a career in journalism, even though I was miserable virtually the whole time I was writing for newspapers and magazines in a variety of internships and whatnot.

But every once and a while, a story - and a tabloid fervor like this one - comes along that makes me happy that I made the choice I did.

Here are the facts of the story, as reported by ESPN. The NCAA and Columbus, Ohio, police investigated Clarett for his actions, and Clarett lied to the investigators on 17 straight occasions about money he had, cars he got the use of, his grades, you name it. 17 times! So the kid was cut from the football team.

This, along with a court decision to not let college sophomores enter the NFL draft, kept Mo out of playing anywhere at all for a couple of years, which no doubt hurt any chances he had of being a big-time draft pick and making tons of dough.

Despite lying and being expelled, he's the centerpiece of an interview where he charges that Ohio State University officials, all of them with an OK record, are the actual criminals. They gave him benefits, then they cut him loose when he couldn't play for them anymore.

ESPN has one other former player who's backing the story. Oh yeah, but he's in jail on a drug charge, and he was likewise expelled from the team.

ESPN questioned Ohio State about all this, and what did they say? Well, the Athletic Director - a guy who recently fired his winning basketball coach when he learned of the coach's NCAA infraction - said there was no credence to the story. He was presented as a fool. The coach - one of the most highly regarded in the sport - said he knew the charges were false, and that he could prove it. The stories presented him as a manipulator.

Oh, and there's a paper trail, too, that doesn't favor Clarett. Remember that car he said OSU gave him for free? Well, the car dealer has a paper record of it being repossessed. And I won't even get into Clarett's record before the NCAA, or into the times that he threatened OSU officials that he'd "blow the program up" if they didn't back him".

The kid's so out there that even his high school coach - his high school coach - says his charges are ridiculous.

So you've got a borderline unhinged player spouting off to a major sports media outlet about the illegal goings-on at a major college football program. And we've got denials - not carefully worded avoidances of the issue, but actual denials - coming from the institution. And did I mention that the institution in question invited the NCAA back on campus to re-investigate all the charges? They're so sure that they've done nothing wrong that they're actually inviting them back.

Now look. I am not so blind in my fanhood that I think Ohio State is a blameless institution. Do I think that they have boosters who probably give money to players when nobody's looking? Sure. Just about every major college program does, which is not so much an excuse as a statement of fact. I wish it weren't so, but it is.

Do I think that Ohio State coddles its athletes and lets them scoot by with a substandard education? You betcha. But again, how much of that is the program's fault, and how much is the player's fault? How sad are any of us when a "regular" kid goes to college and doesn't get his all out of the four years he's around?

Do I think that the priorities at Ohio State as pertains to football are out of whack? Yeah. And I'm to blame, too, because I care more about how they'll do at Michigan this weekend than I do about how many Nobel Prize winners are on their faculty.

Do I think the coaches and staff choose to not investigate some of the booster abuse at Ohio State, thus limiting their own knowledge? Sure. And that's probably the greatest crime here. I've heard stories about coaches telling students in trouble with the NCAA not to tell them (the coaches) what happened, but to tell the investigators the truth. That limits the coach's liability. And it's chicken shit. But I understand. It's the same reason lawyers don't want to know if their clients are guilty.

But OK . . .

Do I think that Maurice Clarett is a less than credible witness, especially up against a bunch of official folks with a good name, who deny everything he says? Yeah. That's right. Clarett has a lot to gain from putting his name back in the spotlight, or so he thinks. And yeah, I trust the coaches and OSU athletic staff more than him, not because they belong to that school, or because I'm so naive, but because they haven't been PROVEN to lie to investigators. They're not PROVEN criminals or miscreants here.

Which is to say, that if they are proven to be in the wrong, then I'll support them being fired and even the athletics being shut down for a year. Fine and dandy. I'll still think Clarett is a less than reliable witness, but I'll admit I was wrong in this case.

Oh yeah, and do I think that ESPN has been less than responsible in its telling of this story? You bet. All the major sports outlets have. It's been a British tabloid style journalism out there. Nobody has learned anything. They don't even present Clarett's story as a claim. They've already acted on everything he's said, as if it must be true. It's irresponsible, and it's disgusting.

I used to argue with my journalistic friends about stuff like this. In journalism school, people talked about reporting as if it were a calling. There was the ever-present "we're like the fourth branch of government; we keep the world honest" argument.

It's just my opinion, of course, but that's an overwrought, self-indulgent piece of elephant crap. And it's wrong. Journalists are, after all, just employees of major corporations. Nobody appoints them. Nobody elects them, or even asks them to put in their two cents. And if they're wrong, or make a mistake, they have no real comeuppance. They can't lose their license. If they get sued, even, they can find another job.

Sure, there are ethical, reliable people in the press. But when something like this breaks, I'm afraid that most of them are left in the dust. You have to report on a story like this, even when it's half-baked and half-witted. If it all turns out to be wrong, that won't make the cover of ESPN: the magazine. It'll make the fifth page, under the box scores.

When I entered journalism school, I imagined coming into a world of righteous public servants - the kind of folks you saw toiling on the side of justice in movies and at the Daily Planet. Doesn't exist. What we've got instead is a group of people just one step removed from the tabloid wonders of the UK, the people who build up and tear down people for headlines, people who believe the truth is no defense against a half-truth or innuendo that'll sell a lot of papers.

The question, I suppose, is whether the journalists here stop short of their UK cousins because they actually want to be more ethical, or because they don't have the guts to go all the way.

Thursday, November 11, 2004


Back from hiatus

It's been a while since I checked in, but it's been busy. Many apologies to both of you who are reading this.

First off, Halloween came to Los Angeles. Steph's friend Tara McNichols was in town, checking out SoCal for the first time. Drinking was a major theme, as we headed to bars on the West Side (the World Cafe and Bar, the Arsenal), and then over to West Hollywood (Lola's, birthplace of the Apple Martini). We also tried out Pink's, one of them there hot dog stands that make people stand in line for hours upon hours to try its wares.

In general, I'm not a big fan of the hole in the wall eateries that make you wait in line around the corner. Witness Garrett's Popcorn in Chicago. A million degrees below zero and people wait in line for . . . popcorn. "This is the BEST POPCORN!" someone once told me.

"Fools," Indiana Jones would have said. "Bureaucratic fools."

Anyway, Halloween weekend also included the infamous West Hollywood Halloween Parade - really more of a street festival than a parade. Highlights:

1) A fat guy in a tight white T-shirt that said, "I'm what Mary Kate Olsen sees in the mirror".

2) French maid outfits.

3) The creepy old man from the Six Flags commercial.


1) The naked guy painted silver with bat wings and antlers.

2) Batman minus the costume. That's right. A mask, a batsymbol on the chest, leather straps across the chest, and a speedo.

3) Jody Watley - no wait, she was part of the entertainment.

I went in costume as Richie Cunningham from Happy Days. My wife was a butterfly. Hans went as a Republican (blue blazer, red tie, US Ronald Reagan baseball cap), but a lot of people thought he was Michael Moore. Tara was a hippie. Good times. If I can figure out how to do photos, I'll put em up there.

Of course, a couple of days later, the real terror set in.

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