Big Sports Coverage/Controversy Week: Three Men Out?

By: Joe Strupp

As this week unfolds, sports writers may find themselves covering three of the most controversial stories of the year at the same time, and much of the news will include events off the field featuring two of the best known names in America (Bonds and Vick) along with a previously obscure basketball ref.

The first, of course, is Barry Bonds’ possibly breaking Hank Aaron?s career home run record, the most hallowed record in sports. With Bonds? ongoing steroid scandal, potential tax fraud indictment, and surly personality, any acknowledgement on the sports pages will undoubtedly include subtle critiques and downright offended commentaries. And they should. Bonds? well-researched and reported reliance on performance-enhancing substances ? as well as his failure to admit them – requires those covering the phony record with pen and pad, and keyboard and screen, to put his ?accomplishment? in proper perspective.

Anyone looking for a good guide on how to report this bogus milestone need only review the most recent Sports Illustrated, which properly put Aaron, not Bonds, on the cover and used the occasion to remind fans that Aaron is the one that should be honored, while Bonds is to be questioned, examined and uncovered. That issue also included a worthwhile column by Rick Reilly, who all but advocated stringing Bonds up by his own syringes for a public ridiculing.

It will be interesting to see how the San Francisco Chronicle, which broke the story of Bonds? and other athletes’ use of illegal drugs, in a leaked-document parade of stories several years ago, covers the record. Their reporting nearly sent writers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams to jail for refusing to divulge their source, while also sparking their great book on the subject, ?Game of Shadows.? But local fans appear to be more than ready to celebrate the Bonds’ moment — although he has gotten booed everywhere else.

Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein has said on several occasions that the paper will mark the event, but likely not with the same heralded praise it might have provided in a non-controversial moment. I suggest they, too, put Aaron on the front page, if not on the editorial page in a strong rebuke of this moment.

Next on the agenda this week will be two alleged acts of immoral and criminal intent, starring one of the NFL?s top quarterbacks, and a veteran NBA referee.

In football, Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons has shown an ability to scramble and play with abandon that can mean rushing yards and defenders left on their backs. This past week, though, allegations that he is involved in illegal dog-fighting (which included executing injured or just poorly performing animals), have already cost him endorsements and may mean a missed season and criminal charges.

Whether Vick is guilty of anything other than poor judgment is yet to be known. But those covering him, newspaper columnists and reporters especially, need to remember that piling on can turn ugly if the facts don?t bear out. Witness recent cases ranging from the Duke lacrosse team to Baltimore Ravens’ defense star Ray Lewis’ alleged connection to a Super Bowl murder years ago. In each case, the accused were proven innocent, but not before they were put up for public ridicule at the hands of over-zealous prosecutors, and in some cases, press reports.

On the other hand, Vick?s fame and popularity must not let him off, either. Advice for those on the beat: move cautiously and carefully, and beware that only a balanced, in-depth probe will stand the test of time.

The same focus holds true for referee Tom Donaghy, alleged to have been involved in gambling on games he officiated. The New York Post?s Murray Weiss has shown newspaper leadership once again on such investigative stories, breaking the scoop of an FBI probe into Donaghy last week. Now, as the speculation mounts that Donaghy, and perhaps other NBA refs, were involved in similar betting schemes, those covering the story need walk a careful line between implicating all those involved and ignoring what could become a credibility crisis for pro basketball.

In today?s landscape of knee-jerk response and web-crazed news-traffic that often spreads guilt or innocence too quickly before the facts are in, those charged with covering these sports need to practice such basics more than ever. It remains true that newspaper beat reporters cover baseball, basketball and football more closely than any other media simply by being on the game day in and day out. This week, and in the weeks to come, as each story is shaped and uncovered, these same journalists, and others recruited from elsewhere at their papers to join the fray, will form the public?s perception. Hopefully, that will be a correct one, guilty or not.

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