Monday, December 9, 2013

Sideline Stupidity and Nothing More

Dear Seminole fans: enough with the castigating of ESPN's Heather Cox.  I am not joining your Facebook page calling on the sports network to fire their sideline reporter.  I am not still stewing over her line of questioning of quarterback Jameis Winston.  Time to do as your quarterback did: move on.

Ms. Cox has earned the ire of FSU football fans for her post-game interview of the freshman football star.  The team had just shoved Duke all over the field to continue its quest for a National Championship title.  Winston had performed pretty well, although not nearly as sharp as he'd been during the rest of the season.   And this is not surprising, given that the young man had been through a very public, daily examination of an event that happened on December 7, 2012, in which Winston had allegedly sexually assaulted a woman. After three long weeks of having the state attorney's office look into the case (which only became public when a reporter from Tampa made an inquiry), the determination was that there would be no charges filed.  This took the proverbial monkey off Winston's back, and now sportswriters, who suddenly had concern for the 'moral character' of athletes, could feel OK about voting for Winston for the Heisman Trophy.  Meanwhile, from what I have heard in the news reports, the young woman, whom the Tallahassee police supposedly advised not to file charges in this 'football town', is no longer at FSU.

You would think this would be a "case closed" situation.  And it pretty much is.  Except that Ms. Cox brought it to the fore in the post-game interview with Winston.  After asking one question about the game, every subsequent question was about "the investigation." Winston kept attempting to move the narrative back to the game, but Ms. Cox kept pressing him.  She asked him what he learned from the whole episode, and he told her he had learned he needed to grow up and "have some maturity."  Fair enough, but Cox wanted to know more about why he'd stayed silent during "the investigation."  It was at this point that Jameis Winston decided to exhibit his new-found maturity: he turned and walked away, with Ms. Cox yelling after him a "Congratulations!"

As a former broadcast journalist, my own take on that interview was that once she got him to say the bit about his maturity, she needed to wrap things up with some talk about their next steps to a National Championship and be done with it.  Sideline interviews are not 60-Minutes; they're about 60-90 seconds.  She was absolutely within reason to bring up the events that had been surrounding him because that is part of the Jameis Winston story, sad as that is.  And I would have thrown the penalty flag for her not knowing when it's time to keep the interview going forward and not going back over an already dead subject.  In football speak, this was "Roughing the passer."

But 'Noles fans are demanding that this not just be an ejection from the sidelines for Ms. Cox; they're calling for her to be fired.

And the message to reporters becomes this: we love our athletes, and you need to leave them alone!  What about your President? Congressional representatives?  Your governor?  Your state legislators?  The private business owner who won't serve blacks or gays?  Are reporters supposed to look past their flaws, their foibles, their troubles?  The public has an insatiable appetite for every drunken, drugged up stupid thing any actor or actress in Hollywood does, no matter their age or maturity.  Why should a college athlete be treated any differently?

I feel for Heather Cox.  If there had been a Facebook during the days that I was reporting for Florida Public Radio, there might have been a "String up Susan Gage" page started for any number of times that I asked a person in a position of authority and power an uncomfortable question that their fan base didn't like.   I was aware of the phone calls made to the local public radio station, complaining about me being everything from a "gay agenda pushing bitch" to a woman with a "personal vendetta" against Publix (that one always floored me since I shop at Publix.)  The Development Director in 1996 was horrified that I had done a reporter's commentary on witnessing an execution and that WFSU-FM was playing it during the morning rush hour when he was in the middle of a pledge drive.  He didn't demand my resignation, but he was apparently having a fit and fretting that my not-so-happy news report was going to silence the phones, and there was a level of "How dare you?!" in his tone.   Even the press staff of Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles went after me because I asked a question about a bill that would have revolutionized how Florida dealt with the AIDS crisis.  The House and Senate versions of the bill contradicted each other in a major way; Chiles' staff had put out a release indicating he supported both measures.  The Governor kept waffling in his answers to questions about all of this until I finally said, "Governor, you don't seem comfortable with this bill?"  Chiles responded, "I think you're right, you're absolutely right."  That began a barrage of phone calls from Chiles' press office to my boss, calling into question whether I really had understood the Governor's answer, and whether I could accurately report the story.  It was relentless and disturbing.  Thanks be to God that there was no social media to add to my misery.

I understand 'Noles fans being upset.  But Ms. Cox is paid to ask questions, and sometimes the subject matter isn't always nice, and that is no reason to call for her head.  Jameis Winston did exactly what he should have done and has every right to do: he walked away without another word.  There is no law that says he must answer any journalist's questions ever.  He showed the maturity he talked about.  He has moved on to thinking about Pasadena.  So should we.

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