When Bob Huggins, then coach of the University of Cincinnati’s men’s basketball team, stood on his front steps in August and faced a mass of reporters, the expression on his face was almost painful to watch.
Leave me alone, guys, his eyes said as he insisted he knew nothing about losing his job, was completely unaware that his boss, University President Nancy Zimpher, had called for his immediate resignation. No one from the school has contacted me, he said, pleading with the reporters to give him a break until he was able to compose himself, talk to someone at the place where he’d worked for sixteen years.
On that day, with a tired man’s face filling my television screen, I had to wonder why the media didn’t put down their microphones and give the man a break. Despite his not-so-stellar reputation (due, in part, to lackluster graduation levels and the rumors of improprieties that have swirled around Cincinnati for much of Huggins’ tenure as head coach, not to mention his occasional nastiness when it comes to dealing with the national press), as a fan, I didn’t want to see this man’s pain broadcast on my Sports Center. For me and all other viewers, it’s a game. For Huggins, it’s his life; no matter how much of a jerk he may have been in the past, shouldn’t he be allowed a moment of dignity to compose himself away from the spotlight?
We’ve seen coaches fired before; often times, it’s the disgrace of a losing season (or several); just as often, rules violations and scandals are the reason. But why didn’t the media take Huggins at his word, and allow him to figure out if he’d been fired on his own? Can you imagine UNC’s Roy Williams or Kentucky’s Tubby Smith in this situation? No, because those men would be given the respect the head coach of a major university has earned.
So why does the media give some athletes a pass, while others are left out to dry?
Take Rafael Palmeiro. When baseball finally, finally, after fifteen years of rumors of drug use, of inflated statistics and biceps, finally decided to tackle the issue of steroids in their sport, we all pretty much assumed that it was too little, too late. That any ballplayer with more than three brain cells would quit the juice, or move to one of those designer substances said to be completely undetectable. We watched players like Pudge Rodriguez and Jason Giambi shrink drastically, Barry Bonds hang out all season on the drug-test-free DL, nodding at the unknown minor league names filling the Caught Cheating list, assuming they were too desperate or too stupid to stop taking steroids.
But then Palmeiro, July’s Feel-Good story with his 3,000 career hit, shocked the baseball nation when Major League Baseball revealed he was the first big star to fail a drug test, and he’d be suspended for ten games for using steroids.
The media was dying for this moment. After months of suspicions, allegations, accusations from former players, and drastic weight loss, the sports media was anxious for a scapegoat. Someone who would be found guilty of cheating, a name, an identity to pin on this whole horrible scandal.
They wanted Bonds. Bonds is nasty, and he’s had a horrible relationship with the national press for much of his career. During spring training, he dragged his son in front of the television cameras and blamed reporters for ruining his young life (as if it were Rick Reilly and Michael Holley who forced Bonds to use illegal substances and cheat on his wife.) They would have been happy with Giambi, Gary Sheffield, and even one of the big-mouthed, big-waisted pitchers who’d been acting up for years, but Bonds was definitely Man Most Wanted.
So what did the media do when it was Palmeiro, nice guy Rafi, the one who is always quick with a smile and a post-game quote, who was caught cheating?
Yeah, you guessed it. They softballed him.
The sports media reported the results of Palmeiro’s failed drug test with a tinge of incredulousness. ESPN went to their favorite sources –- other sports reporters -– who all looked at the camera with a mix of shock and disbelief and said, “Not this guy.” And once they realized it was Palmeiro, one of the nice guys, one of their good guys, that’s when they got tough.
“No way am I voting for this guy first ballot for the Hall of Fame,” they said. He’ll have to wait for his second year of eligibility.
Uh, yeah. Apparently the writers, the ones who decide which ballplayers are accepted into the most elite club in sports, think that it’s OK to litter the Hall with men who break the rules of baseball, as long as it takes an extra few months to let them in.
These guys need to be reminded that one of the greatest players of all time remains outside the gates of Cooperstown for a much lesser offense. That even Pete Rose’s sins, which garnered a lifetime ban, pale in comparison against the implications of Palmeiro’s flunked drug test.
Of course, the media’s reaction isn’t as nearly as suspect as that of President Bush. Arguably the man who uncorked this whole can of worms with his State of the Union rally cry to remove steroids from professional sports, Bush took a firm stance against the drug use and demanded stiffer penalties for those caught using.
So the President was vindicated when Palmeiro’s suspension was announced, right?
“He’s my friend,” said Bush of Palmeiro, once a member of the Texas Rangers, a team Bush used to own. Then, referring to the sworn Senate testimony Palmeiro gave in March claiming he didn’t use steroids, the President went on to say, “He testified in public, and I believe him.”
So basically, Major League Baseball needs to be tough on drug use, to crack down on steroids and other performing-enhancing drugs in the locker room, and punish ballplayers to the greatest extent possible –- except when they are nice guys. Or our friends. Friends, like Palmeiro, they get a pass.
And the sports media continues to do their job, hounding men they don’t like when the going gets rough, and giving the nice guys as a comparative pass. Maybe it’s just another aspect of human nature, but the national media is going to continue to treat the Bob Huggins one way, and the Rafael Palmerios another.
Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw
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9.8.05 @ 11:42a
I wonder if the steroids had anything to do with Palmeiro's run of Viagra ads?
Interesting take on the situation, Michelle. I'm curious to see whether or not Palmeiro will be back at all this season, or how he is received next season. Will the fans follow the sports media's lead, or will they be more unforgiving?
3.3.06 @ 9:39a
I thought about this last night as I was watching the Sox/Twins game.
The announcers (on FSN North - the feed I got) talked about Palmeiro.
"Now there was someone that really amazed you as a player. When he started the game, he was a singles hitter, but ended up hitting over 500 home runs in his career. Nobody knows how he did it."
Amazing! How did it happen?!