Steve Spurrier and the Media Mess

There is so much not to like with this Steve Spurrier-Ron Morris dust-up in Columbia, S.C.  It’s hard to find anyone doing the right thing.

1. Start with Spurrier.  His remarks seemed directly not only at Ron Morris, the offending sports columnist for The State in Columbia, but also at any sports journalist who would be tempted to take on the Old Ball Coach.

It just seems a bit creepy when a coach turns his attention to the media who cover him and complains.  Most coaches don’t like the criticism that is written about them.  They are not expected to celebrate the First Amendment when they are on the receiving end of a blast.  But most coaches ignore it.

When Spurrier crossed that line, it was unfortunate and unnecessary.  It started with a refusal to answer questions both at a press conference and on a conference call.  It finished with a blunt statement on his weekly radio show.

2. Morris is not off the hook either.  The breaking point for many besides Spurrier came when Morris, in complaining about Spurrier’s high-handedness and the university’s unwillingness to rein him in, compared the situation to Penn State.  Throwing such analogies out require great care.  He was forced to apologize, but he should have known better.

As to whether Ron Morris is the journalistic buzz-saw Spurrier alleges, check out his recent column on Spurrier’s decision to play Connor Shaw against UAB.  I’ll be honest; I’ve read worse.  This doesn’t come close to what Skip Bayless would have said or what Jason Whitlock would have written in similar conditions.

But this is the article that Spurrier was referring to as “very negative, critical toward me, slandered my name, my integrity,” adding, “The guy’s trying to tarnish and ruin my reputation as a coach.”  Really, Coach?  He comes off sounding awfully thin-skinned.

True, much of the controversy surrounding Morris involves an article he wrote more than a year ago that accused Spurrier of “poaching” Bruce Ellington from the USC basketball team.  The facts for that are definitely in dispute.  But the more recent column is light years away from that.

3. WOLO-TV, the ABC affiliate in Columbia, also looks bad.  The station managers cancelled the “Mondays with Morris” segment in light of the controversies.  The timing of such a move looks bad enough, almost like pandering to Spurrier.

But WOLO general manager Chris Bailey compounded the mistake with a statement that includes the following gem: “Free speech … was originally put in place to protect media and writers from government censorship.  It does not, however, protect the writer from consequences in the realm of public opinion or the marketplace.”  Perhaps, Mr. Bailey, but that is because the assumption is that the media themselves will enforce high standards of free expression and debate in the public interest, rather than cutting and running when the heat is turned up.

With this line of thinking, the station would be justified in refusing to air controversial editorial comments on important political issues, because it is the station and not the government making the decision.  That is sad.

4. Finally, the other journalists covering the University of South Carolina are not looking too brave.  Their silence on the issue is disturbing.  The only protests against Spurrier’s words came from national media like Gregg Doyel at CBS Sports.  The onlylocal protest came from Dan Cook of the Free Times, a Columbia weekly.  Nothing yet from the daily sports media.

It seems like Spurrier is getting a free ride from the beat writers covering USC.  They are open to the accusation that they are allowing Spurrier to intimidate and manipulate them.  And, the argument continues, they are letting him get away with it because they know that, as a winning coach, he has the fans’ support regardless of the ethics of his actions.

It is similar to the situation in Alabama (disclaimer: I am an Auburn fan), where the press covering Nick Saban seem reluctant to criticize or even address his treatment of the media.  Before the Western Kentucky game, when Saban went off on the sportswriters for underestimating WKU, the writers mainly joked about it.  The national media again was left to take Saban to task for a truly strange rant.

In both cases, the sports writers know that the fans – their readers – support the coach.  When the coach directly criticizes the media, the fans might respond by canceling subscriptions, or clicking on other websites.  It seems like the sports writers would rather “play ball” with the coach then stand up to him when he crosses the line, as Spurrier did with Morris.  They are intimidated by their readers as much as the coach.

Obviously, the treatment is different for coaches who are not winning.  Can you imagine what would happen if John L. Smith at Arkansas or Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech complained about the media at this point in the season?  The local media would rise up and attack.

Now think about coaches like Mark Richt at the University of Georgia.  He receives his share of criticism and comment, but does he chastise and try to manipulate the media?  He deals with it and moves on.

A colleague brought up another point.  Communities like Columbia, S.C., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., have a more provincial feel to them where coaches like Spurrier and Saban can get away with such treatment of the local media.  But the larger the city, the harder it is to pull that off.

Lane Kiffin knows that he can’t get away with it at USC, try though he did.  Any coach, pro or college, who would try that in New York City, Chicago, Washington, and maybe even Atlanta (considering Richt’s approach) would only make a bad situation worse.

But win or lose, big town or small town, what Steve Spurrier is trying to accomplish with the media in Columbia is wrong.  And I wish that more journalists would have the courage to stand up to him on it.