As journalists we at SI pride ourselves on our fairness and accuracy, so we were concerned when we received complaints that Southern Discomfort, a story in our Oct. 25, 1993, issue, contained serious errors. Southern Discomfort chronicled the racial divisiveness in Hampton, Va., caused by the conviction and imprisonment of high school basketball star Allen Iverson, who is black, on charges arising from a brawl in a bowling alley. Among those who took issue with Southern Discomfort was a white employee of the bowling alley, Julia M. Weaver, who has filed a libel suit against SI charging that the story wrongly depicted her as racist.
This is an article from the Feb. 21, 1994 issue
Without regard for any possible effect on Weaver's lawsuit, SI's editors have conducted a review of Southern Discomfort and have determined that the story contained the following significant errors:
•The story said that on the night of the brawl, "the woman at the counter" in the bowling alley assigned Iverson and several other black youths to "a lane against the wall." We repeated this statement in an apology to Weaver in our Nov. 29, 1993, issue. In the apology we noted that Weaver, who was not identified by name in Southern Discomfort, had since told us that she was the only woman working the counter that night. Courtroom testimony indicates that the youths were assigned to lanes 9 and 10 in the 32-lane establishment, not against the wall. In addition, SI has determined that a man, not a woman, made the lane assignments.
•SI misidentified Brandon Smith, another bowling alley employee and the key prosecution witness in the Iverson trial, as black. Smith is white.
•The story quoted Kristi Alligood, a woman who was bowling at the alley, as saying that a man she identified as Iverson poked a friend of hers, Barbara Steele, in the face. Trial testimony, subsequent SI interviews with Steele and media accounts indicate that it was Alligood who was poked in the face, by a man she and Steele say was Iverson.
•A statement that Iverson's five-year sentence was "on a par with those frequently given to rapists and murderers" was hyperbolic. We more properly might have said that Iverson's sentence was on a par with those frequently given to rapists and to individuals convicted of manslaughter and some other homicides.
•Noting that judge Nelson Overton denied the bail requests of Iverson and two other youths convicted in the brawl, we said that "felons convicted of far more heinous crimes are routinely granted bail." Later we said, "In Virginia, all but the most violent criminals are routinely granted appeal bonds." Both statements are exaggerations.
In addition to the above errors, two editing lapses should be mentioned:
•NAACP crisis coordinator Golden Frinks was quoted in Southern Discomfort as calling it "strange" that police "waded through a huge mob of fighting people and came out with only blacks." But at other points the story correctly reported that "most of the black combatants fled" before police arrived and that arrests were made not on the night of the brawl but later.
•SI said that "aside from a traffic violation, [Iverson] had never before been in trouble with the law" but also noted that Iverson had a probation officer even before his trial. In fact, in October 1992, he was convicted of reckless driving and driving without a license. The next month he again was arrested for driving without a license, failed to appear in court and ultimately was ordered to perform 40 hours of community service. It was then that he was assigned a probation officer—with whom he then missed five meetings.
SI stands by the main points of the story: that the Iverson case created a racial divide in Hampton and that a five-year sentence was a severe one to impose on an 18-year-old with no previous history of violence. Former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder apparently reached the latter conclusion as well. Shortly before he left office on Jan. 15, Wilder granted conditional clemency to Iverson.
None of this excuses the errors in Southern Discomfort. Portions of the story were not up to SI's standards, and we apologize to our readers.