It was H. L. Mencken who wrote, "A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier." In the last few weeks some denizens of the state of Oklahoma have forever certified the sage's remarks. Exhibiting a knee-jerk doltishness that Mencken would have appreciated, these Oklahomans castigated and threatened a sports editor and his newspaper, all because that paper had the temerity to report the truth: that another NCAA investigation of the University of Oklahoma football program was under way.
Following publication of the story in the Oct. 25 Oklahoma City Times, Frank Boggs, widely acknowledged to be the best (and heretofore, also the best-liked) sportswriter in the state, had to have police protection for four nights because of bomb threats and other telephoned intimidations, including 30 calls in one two-hour period. For simply being the messenger bearing the bad news, Boggs has been labeled the state's "Public Enemy No. 1"; several hundred subscriptions to the Times have been canceled; hate mail has poured in; there have been dark whispers of advertisers boycotting the Oklahoma Publishing Company (Opubco, which publishes the morning Oklahoman as well as the afternoon Times): and, perhaps most important of all in a nation where a man lets his automobile speak for him, there have even been bumper stickers: HONK IF YOU HATE OPUBCO and TO HELL WITH THE OKLAHOMAN AND TIMES.
Jack Taylor, who shared the byline on the piece with Boggs, has done investigative features on the Mafia and the Teamsters, and over a period of 2½ years he wrote 248 stories about Governor David Hall and corruption in his administration—greasing the skids for Hall's conviction and jail term which began last month. Taylor found the reaction to the football pieces "much more controversial" than to any of his previous articles. Even Taylor's father dropped over one day and said, "Can't you wait till after the season?"
All of this obloquy has been heaped upon Boggs and Taylor for merely reporting that the NCAA is looking into charges of a ticket-scalping scandal among OU players. The paper did not make a single allegation itself. Nine days after the article appeared on the front page of the Times, the NCAA acknowledged that indeed it was investigating Oklahoma and that it had been doing so for some time. In other words, the story was correct.
December 13, 1976
But in Oklahoma, whose patron saint, Will Rogers, was once celebrated for his admission that the sum of his information came from the daily press, some folks evidently believe that freedom of the press does not extend to the playing fields. Obviously, the Boggs case is extreme, but what is most disheartening is that it is not an anomaly.
The prevailing attitude among many fans, athletes and coaches around the country, most notably in rural areas, is that home-team reporters should be little more than a propaganda arm of "the program." Two seasons ago, an unacceptable column in the Omaha World-Herald by Wally Provost was sufficient grounds for Nebraska Football Coach Tom Osborne to cancel his subscription. Bear Bryant recently called in Mike McKenzie of the Tuscaloosa News and chided him for printing that a 'Bama player was worried about being cut because he would then lose $1,000 from the sale of his game tickets. The Bear cautioned the writer not to get the NCAA on their backs. "If that happened," he said, "we wouldn't have a program and you wouldn't have anything to write about." Many coaches seem to operate under the delusion that big-time sports carry the press, while the opposite is more the truth.
Generally speaking, too, the sports press is meekest where there is only one game in town—like Oklahoma football. In such a situation, coaches can intimidate and, when deemed necessary, cut off uncooperative writers. Consequently, the fans, the athletes and the coaches grow conditioned to puffery. When Don Haskins was coach of 1966 NCAA basketball champion Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso), the team's doings fairly dominated the El Paso sports pages. In 1969, he took the coaching job at the University of Detroit. At the press conference announcing his appointment, Haskins had expected to exchange a few pleasantries with a group of tame reporters. Instead, he was bombarded by tough questions from sportswriters working in a city full of Tigers, Lions, Pistons and Red Wings. "These people are prejudging me," said Haskins, who didn't like the situation at Detroit and quit his new job two hours later. But the idea that the sporting press should engage in boosterism is hardly confined to the backwaters. After the Redskins lost to the Giants a few weeks ago, a Washington TV reporter dared question some of Coach George Allen's decisions. Snapped Allen, "Sometimes I wonder if you're a Redskin fan, the way you talk." What George Allen—and apparently a lot of other people—fails to understand is that the last thing a Washington reporter should be is a Redskin fan.
In fact, as the unfolding of Watergate showed, there is a general misapprehension about the role of the press in the U.S. The confusion is heightened in sports because the same good citizens who become indignant when politicians are caught with their hands in the till or on their secretary's thighs want to escape into a dream bubble where fun and games are not soiled by reality. Jack Anderson may be a public guardian but Frank Boggs becomes a spoilsport.
Another part of the problem is that fans are indoctrinated by broadcast sports journalism. Indeed, many radio and TV announcers masquerade as journalists when they are, in fact, paid shills, hired by the home team to lead cheers. People conditioned to TV's gargle language, bounded by "great" on one side and "tough competitor" on the other, are simply not prepared to read anything that denigrates their heroes.
Boggs and Taylor did not even receive much support from their newspaper colleagues. The competing Oklahoma City paper, the Journal shamelessly capitalized on the issue with a poll, asking readers if the "criticism leveled" against the Sooners by the Times had been "unjustified." Seventy-two percent of the respondents agreed it had, overlooking, or being unaware of, the fact that there had been no criticism. Publisher Charles Engleman of the Clinton (Okla.) Daily News, a lifelong newspaperman and one of the seven OU regents, editorialized against the Times' "hysterical crusade," declaring, "It's unprecedented that the home daily newspaper assume such a petty adversary role."
Traditionally, the most sycophantic reporting of all has come from places where coaches have taken root, like Alabama or Columbus—where the Bear and Woody Hayes hold sway—or from Kentucky, when the Baron, Adolph Rupp, ruled. That phenomenon is now evident in Indiana, where the fledgling curmudgeon Bobby Knight reigns. "There is a fear of Knight among sportswriters in this state," says one Indiana journalist, fearful of revealing his own identity.
When the Indianapolis Star ran a front-page picture last February of Knight grabbing one of his players by the shirt, the incensed coach protested on his TV show. Though Knight could not have anticipated such a vehement reaction, Star Sports Editor Bob Collins was inundated with 800 letters and thousands of calls—including many filthy ones that came to his wife at home—condemning the paper for "downgrading Indiana University." The photographer, Jerry Clark, endured numerous physical threats, most of them suggesting that he should be smashed in the face with the camera that had dared take an accurate picture.
Knight's handling of the press has enjoyed the tacit support of the athletic department and the university itself. One of the few times Knight was overruled in his dealings with the press came after the shirt-yanking incident, which he had responded to by banning photographers from the next Indiana home game. University President John Ryan agreed to let the photographers work only after—as photographer Clark explains—"the AP, the UPI and the Star management jumped on Dr. Ryan to see who was running the university."
At present, however, the administration and its new athletic director, Paul Dietzel, himself an ex-coach, is backing Knight in his latest puerile press dispute, this one with the university paper, the Indiana Daily Student. Phil Tatman of the paper wrote several weeks ago that Knight had thrown an ashtray in disgust in the IU football press box. The basketball coach claimed otherwise and several eyewitnesses have backed him up. Knight called the paper's assistant publisher in a rage, then prohibited student basketball reporters from attending practice or traveling with the team. The Daily Student printed a correction, but Knight has not rescinded his ban. The university has not contradicted this stance, and so Tatman, with no recourse, wrote a conciliatory note to the coach. Knight deemed it insufficiently contrite, however, and is apparently holding out for a personal abjuration.
The episode in Oklahoma is more significant and more pathetic because it involves a whole institution, a whole state and not just one coach's traumatized ego. Indeed, the coach at Oklahoma, Barry Switzer, appears baffled, not bellicose. Like so many Oklahomans, he finds it impossible to believe that the Times and OU alums Boggs and Taylor would report objectively and truthfully simply as a matter of professional journalistic responsibility. Instead, Switzer offers that there must be some ulterior motive. He refers darkly to a possible conspiracy or vendetta. The most popular theory is that the high muckety-mucks at Opubco ordered Boggs to do in OU football because the university switched its broadcast rights from Opubco's radio station.
Certainly, Switzer seems to believe that some kind of spell has been cast over Boggs. "He is a friend," says the coach. "The man who has done this attacking is not the Frank Boggs I knew."
Says Boggs, "Despite the fuss, I know it only involves a small minority. Oklahomans are basically good people—better'n anybody I know—and most are genuinely concerned that something might be wrong. They don't want anything to be wrong—but, hell, neither do I."
Boggs stumbled upon the ticket-scalping story around the time of the Texas game, in October, when Longhorn Coach Darrell Royal was lodging allegations of spying against Oklahoma. While spying is not specifically in violation of NCAA rules, Oklahoma fans have just cause for worry when accusations about unethical conduct are made: three times in the last 21 years the school has gone on probation, the most recent occasion keeping the Sooners off network TV and out of postseason play for two years despite being one of the top teams in the country.
One of the contributing factors to this situation is that the university administration appears to play second fiddle to the football team. (OU students like to repeat an old campus saying first uttered by a former president of the school: "We want to build a university the football team can be proud of.") Thus, even though NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers informed Oklahoma President Paul Sharp that OU football was indeed being investigated on the same day the Boggs-Taylor article appeared. Sharp played semantic games when asked about the Times' stories. He denied that OU was being "officially" investigated, which was technically correct, as the investigation was in its "informal" stage, according to NCAA terminology. But this coy protestation, combined with secret regents' meetings, heaped coals on the fires.
The Times itself fanned these passions by blowing the Boggs-Taylor stories out of proportion. This is hard to believe ("It'll be in journalism books for the next 50 years," Boggs says), but the day after the presidential election the Times ran another OU investigation story at the top of the front page in bold type, with Jimmy Carter's election reported far less dramatically below.
But then, we should not really be surprised at any of this because OU football is inextricably woven into the fabric of the state. As publisher Engleman says, "We're a young state, striving for excellence, and football has been the one place where we have achieved excellence."
According to Larry Merchant, a sports journalist who attended OU as a football player and is writing a book on Sooner football, the gridiron powerhouse was purposely contrived by businessmen as a way of combating the negative "Okie" image created by writers like John Steinbeck. Coming on the heels of Rodgers and Hammerstein, who had given Oklahoma an exclamation mark. Bud Wilkinson's successful postwar Sooner teams provided the state with a bright and recognizable new face. Says Abe Lemons, the University of Texas basketball coach, who is an Oklahoma expatriate, "I used to admit to ev'rbody that I was from Oklahoma, but I'd be sure to add real fast, 'but from down near the Texas line.' Wilkinson's teams were important to the whole state. They undone all the things Steinbeck did. Frank Boggs is the finest guy I ever knew. He's never written anything cruel about anybody. But, you see, he's attacked the Pope."
Boggs understands well enough. He has spent much of his life in Oklahoma. He is, anyway, an observer. Like a lot of sportswriters, he is not even much of a sports fan. "I'd rather rake leaves than just go see a game," he says. The two events he most prizes having watched are the Neil Armstrong moon shot and a Harvard-Penn game where most of the fans drank wine and one team or the other won. He cites these two events because each in its own way puts big-time football in perspective.
Boggs tried to explain himself as a writer right after the trouble started, when the threats and letters were pouring in, when old friends ostracized him. He wrote in his column: "Maybe sports-writers are gullible, perhaps naive. We exist in a world of excitement and Sousa music and beautiful cheer-leading girls who surely will wind up in tears whether their team won or lost. We often become good friends of the coaches and of their wives, and when a coach is under heavy attack, we feel doubly saddened.... But sportswriters are also newspapermen, and they must be newspapermen first and sportswriters second."