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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 2� 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.
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."