THE UNGENTLE ART OF PERSUASION
Unlike man's finer instincts, which seem to percolate downward and settle in the bones, arrogance is a gassy thing that rises irresistibly until it finds a point of release, usually the mouth. Last week a pall of arrogance hung over San Francisco and Green Bay, following two incidents involving the general managers of the NFL teams in those cities and the newsmen who cover them.
Joe Thomas, who was brought to the San Francisco 49ers two years ago to be the franchise's savior, has been something less than that. Thomas is a Machiavellian character who had a formidable record of success with Minnesota, Miami and Baltimore, but despite the facelift he has given the 49ers, the team has won but one game this season. That prompted Frank Blackman of The San Francisco Examiner to write a piece laying the blame at Thomas' feet. It was not a flattering article, typified by such Blackmanisms as "The 49ers are Joe Thomas' team and they stink."
Thomas learned of the story before the paper hit the street, and he hit the ceiling. Locating Blackman in a disco, Thomas approached him on the dance floor. According to Blackman, an irate Thomas squeezed him repeatedly on the upper arm and accused him of being "a turncoat." After haranguing Blackman for several minutes, Thomas, shouting, "I'm going to get you for this," was led out by the assistant manager.
Thomas later said he would like to see Blackman taken off the 49ers' beat, and owner Eddie DeBartolo concurred. "I'm going to see if there is any legal way we can keep Blackman from covering the 49ers," said DeBartolo.
Thomas has a reputation for highhandedness, so his outburst was not altogether surprising. The shocker came a few days later when gentlemanly Bart Starr, the coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers, threatened reprisals against four reporters who refused to suppress the fact that the Packers were apparently in violation of the league's so-called stashing rule.
Starr had invited Duane Thomas, the itinerant running back, to Green Bay for the permissible 24-hour tryout with the club, which might have been duly noted and forgotten—Thomas did not make the team—had not Thomas remained for a week of workouts. When he was first asked about Thomas' prolonged presence, Starr protested, "I can't make him leave town. We can't tell him he can't be here if he just wants to continue working out on his own." Despite his statements for the record, however, Starr said privately, "We don't want everyone knowing we're still looking at him."
When it became evident at a news conference that the four reporters had checked with the NFL office to see if it was investigating the matter, Starr was furious. "This is a damned cutthroat business," he said. "There are other bloodthirsty bastards out there trying to get an edge; working out guys in pads with their teams. They're cheating. We don't cheat, but we're going to go to the limit within the rules and we're going to bend them within the framework."
Starr paused. "You can print what you want," he said, "but if you print this, you're not going to come through this door again."
Subsequently, Starr publicly admitted that Thomas had used the Green Bay facilities for the entire week, but that he didn't realize this was against NFL rules.