This past Sunday, I received crushing personal and professional news: My good friend, former longtime Sports Illustrated columnist Don Banks, died at age 56 while in Canton, Ohio, covering the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. We had known each other since 1991—pre-free agency, pre-CBA, even pre-cell phones and internet. We grew up in the NFL together. Since his passing, it has been comforting to read about the universal respect Don had from his peers.
He truly was smart, funny, kind and supportive. His family has so much of which to be proud.
And while we were great personal friends, what I respected most about Don is that he was the consummate journalist. Both of us fully understood our roles and duties. Even in our most private discussions about sensitive professional topics, he always adhered to rock-solid journalistic tenets. You could trust whatever Don wrote; it was always well-sourced and fair, and most importantly, written with ethical protocols.
Writing fair stories in an ethical manner may sound easy, but I assure you it is not. In my view, the NFL media business is far more difficult than any other sports beat. It is incredibly competitive, filled with smart, driven and highly ambitious men and women, covering the most popular sport in the U.S. If one can get to the ‘top,’ seven figure salaries can be had. With that kind of potential payoff, the industry in which Don thrived can be highly political and often pushes against ethical boundaries.
Don had reason to call me many times over the course of nearly 30 years regarding stories that involved my clients, or other important issues within the NFL. And some of these stories were among the most high-profile in the NFL, making it a touchy subject for both of us.
Both Don and I knew how his industry worked—the more stories he could ‘break,’ the better it was for his personal career. But he never played that game. He was just a solid reporter, sticking to journalistic tenets that some may say have fallen out of favor. He was not an “ends justifies the means”-type of reporter. He understood that “the means are just as important as the ends.” And that’s an important distinction.
Here’s a summary of how he worked:
• Never once did he implicate our friendship in his duties. I never heard, “Oh c’mon, give me this story—I thought you were my friend!” Any friendship was completely separate from the job at hand.
• No matter how much he might have respected me or my opinion on a subject, he always would let me know he would have to check out an alternative angle or opinion. Nothing personal, but as a journalist, he took the obligation of ‘both sides of the story’ seriously.
• If I disagreed with an angle he took, he never took it personally.
• If he disagreed with me, he never made it personal—the subject always was discussed clinically, in the spirit of learning.
• He never, ever revealed the identity of anyone else he spoke to regarding a topic.
• He never tried to twist my words or shade them to fit a specific angle.
One example: Many times we would see each other at playoff games, and often at Super Bowls. We would meet up for a drink and talk about a wide range of NFL-related issues. Most of the time, in order to ‘immunize’ him and me, I would light heartedly say, “Hey, remember, we’re just talking, right?” That’s code for “what we say here stays here.” Journalists never really are off the clock, and both of us knew that.
On more than one occasion, however, I forgot to give the code. And on more than one occasion, Don would call me the next day or next week, if he thought something I said would be of interest as a story item, and ask my permission to use the item.
Now many journalists would simply go ahead and use the item, saying “Hey, you forgot the code. Tough, that’s on you.” That wasn’t Don. He knew the intent of our discussions. And even though he wasn’t obligated to check with me, he did. He gave me a chance to correct an error. This may seem a small matter to the average reader. But in the journalism realm, it’s an important way to distinguish one journalist from another.
Don helped popularize the sport with great storytelling and reporting—his Snap Judgments column for SI was a reflexive read for every NFL fan. But to me, his greatest professional accomplishment was working as an ethical journalist. It can be a hard thing to police yourself, particularly where the payoff is fame and money. But Don’s professional ethics mattered more to him; he demonstrated that in every interaction with me. I will always remember that.
Rest in peace, Don. I was honored to have your friendship, and thank you for helping keep my faith in good, strong journalism.
Don Yee is a sports agent with Yee & Dubin Sports, and he represents several NFL players and coaches.
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