Ambushed Athletes Make Great News

Two decades ago, television news reporter Connie Chung (search) and Indiana University's then-basketball coach Bobby Knight (search) created a bit of television history when Chung elicited from Knight an infamous analogy.

Getting blown out in a basketball game is a lot like rape, Knight said. "If it's inevitable, you may as well sit back and enjoy it."

Viewers watching the interview saw Chung recoil from the comment — a frail, female reporter helpless in the face of this boorish brute's raw misogyny.

What viewers didn't know was that Chung had spent the day joking, cursing and laughing with Knight, loosening him up with coarse language and one-of-the-boys camaraderie so that he'd feel comfortable and relaxed with her on the air.

(Years later, when I was a student at IU, the Chung-Knight episode was frequently invoked by the college's public-relations people to tutor student leaders in the art of media relations.)

Unfortunately today, Chung's 20-year-old ambush of Knight has become typical of sports journalism. See John Rocker (search). Dusty Baker (search). Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder (search). Fuzzy Zoeller (search). Jack Nicklaus (search). Al Campanis (search). Isiah Thomas (search). Bill Parcells (search).

Earlier this month, NBA Hall of Famer Larry Bird (search) fell victim to ESPN reporter Jim Gray (search).

Gray asked Bird if he thought the league needed more white superstars. Bird answered "yes," then went on to elaborate. Bird's answer spawned a firestorm of hand-wringing, navel-gazing and self-important introspection among sports journalists.

Now, Bird's comments may have been politically incorrect. And Knight? His comments were ugly and offensive, and despite my being an IU alumnus, I've never been a Knight fan.

Yet, time and again, we watch manipulative sports reporters bait sports figures into saying something candid and/or offensive, then rush to their laptops to condemn the comment, showing off to the world how cosmopolitan they are, how unsophisticated the sports figure.

It's getting tedious, and nowhere is it more so than at ESPN.

Think back to last fall, when ESPN hired Rush Limbaugh (search) as an in-studio analyst for its NFL coverage. The network announced that it had hired Limbaugh for his provocative style and unique perspective. Fine.

But the moment Limbaugh said anything remotely controversial (not to mention accurate), ESPN's pundits pounced on him, and the network got to show off its tolerance and high-mindedness — this time by firing Limbaugh, who was merely doing what the network hired him to do, which was to be provocative.

As for the Bird interview, ESPN leaked word of the interview several days in advance of its airing, while ESPN's radio and television personalities opined relentlessly on Bird's lack of couth.

When the interview finally aired, it did so amidst a frenzied sports-world buzz that presumably drummed up ratings for Jim Gray's special.

Here's the question no one asked: Why in the world would Jim Gray ask that question? Why inject race into what was to be a discussion about the NBA's old guard and its new blood?

Here's why: Gray knew Bird was an easy target.

Bird's a proud redneck, the self-described "hick from French Lick." Bait Bird into saying something that could be spun as insensitive, and Gray generates buzz all over the sports world. He gets to sound off on Bird's ignorance and retains his reputation as the sports world's edgiest interviewer.

Meanwhile, ESPN's sports talking heads get to roundly condemn Bird, and in the process show how much more educated, open-minded and cultured they are than the athletes they cover.

Sports figures may be famous and well paid, and also perceived as role models, but ultimately, professional sports is blue-collar work.

Athletes get paid to throw, jump, run, hit, sweat and toil. They don't make public policy. They aren't civic leaders or politicians. Generally, they aren't very well educated. They aren't required to attend diversity workshops and sexual harassment training before starting the job. They're paid for what they do with their bodies.

Yet, sportswriters seem not only compelled to routinely pass judgment on athletes' lack of sophistication, but to actively seek out opportunities to do so — even if it means ambushing them at candid moments, or goading them into saying something they wouldn't have volunteered.

(Think back several years ago to when female reporters sued for post-game access to male locker rooms, then were outraged when men did what men do in male locker rooms.)

The irony in all of this is that sports is the last pure meritocracy (search) left in America.

Every athlete on the basketball court, the baseball diamond or the football field has his job solely because of his ability. Not one player makes it to the pro leagues because of who his father was, what neighborhood he was born into or the color of his skin.

White players don't question whether black players are on the team because of an affirmative action (search) program, and black players don't wonder if white players got a leg up thanks to good ol' boy cronyism. Everyone's job, pay and stature is based only on performance.

Other than the military, sports is also the most integrated profession in America — perhaps precisely because it's based on merit.

Sportswriters can gripe all they want about what Larry Bird said, but Larry Bird spent every day of his career working with, around and playing against peers of both races.

If anyone is qualified to speak about race relations in the NBA, it's an actual NBA player — not a sportswriter who covers the league from a newsroom, which, despite the affirmative-action programs and Ivy League credentials driving hiring decisions, remains disproportionately white and male.

If you want a clear-cut example of a system where achievement is based on performance and not race, creed or color, you need look no further than the NBA, the NFL and Major League Baseball.

Maybe that's the problem. Maybe sophisticated sports reporters who long for a world where race doesn't matter have actually found it in professional sports. Maybe they simply don't like what they see.

Radley Balko publishes a weblog at:

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