When Sports Journalism Is An Oxymoron
Earlier this week the University of North Dakota made national headlines when they suspended a play-by-play announcer, Paul Ralston, for telling the truth when the university’s basketball team pulled off a “choke job” (his words) at the end of a game.
Now, it’s undeniable that the team choked. The fans knew it. The coach admitted it. But it was all too much for the thin-skinned ninnies at the University of North Dakota, so Mr. Ralston got a two-game suspension. For obvious reasons having to do with punishing somebody (even a UND employee, as Ralston is) for telling the truth, the university got a lot of criticism for the move.
Except from Grand Forks Herald reporter Tom Miller who, a competent practitioner of the North Dakota journalism tradition of trading deference for access, defended the university’s move in a column published yesterday.
“I was baffled when the story of Ralston being suspended two games for his comments following last Saturday’s loss to Northern Arizona went viral, landing on the front pages of the Sports Illustrated and ESPN websites,” wrote Miller. “This is not about athletic director Brian Faison or Jones having thin skin or the university hushing a critic.”
Well, yeah it kind of is Tom. Ralston was critical, and he got hushed. That Ralston is an employee of UND doesn’t make the punishment for truth-telling any less odious.
Maybe I wouldn’t be so sensitive to this if my friend, reporter Brian Howell, hadn’t gotten yanked off the Dickinson State University “diploma mill” story after former ND university system chancellor Bill Goetz paid a visit to his bosses. Or if my friend, Valley News Live anchor Chris Berg, hadn’t gotten pulled from a sideline reporting gig at NDSU football games after NDSU officials made it clear that they didn’t want a critic of higehr ed policy covering their games.
In these matters, I feel that the truth is always the best defense. The university system loves to bully anyone critical of the university system. Heck, I’ve spoken with a state legislator who, after questioning some of the fiscal decisions made by one of the universities in the state, saw that university’s president pay a visit to that legislator’s employer suggesting that the legislator in question wasn’t being sufficiently supportive of the university.
What happened to Mr. Ralston is just one example of a much larger issue. An issue that’s allowed to exist when the media, the fourth estate that is supposed to hold government entities like the university system accountable, is uncritical.
The reaction to what UND did to Ralston, indeed what was the reaction from most in the national media who picked up the story, should have been righteous indignation. But the way the NDUS operates, that would be bad business for North Dakota reporters.
And that’s the problem.