'All characterizations are fair game in Blogistan' is a phrase I've grown fond of saying as a reminder of our medium and purpose here; that medium being language and that purpose being storytelling. As fans of our teams and armed with keyboards and a vast interconnected network, we take to writing stories that convey the characterizations we are trying to advance. While many of those characterizations fall along partisan team-supported lines, anybody experienced enough with the dichotomies and shizophrenias of the Penn State fanbase can tell you they sometimes also come down very hard on the home team. Which is fine. In an era of sports fanaticism where there's such facility for both the opinionated and their audiences to share and digest, it's natural for disagreements to oppose groupthink (something I hope we continue to see welcomed, respectfully, here at BSD). But it's the storytelling aspect that I've been fascinated by lately. You've got a point of view you'd like to convey, you dig in to your bag of words and begin painting your picture.Last week, one of the better Ohio State writers working these days, Ramzy Nasrallah, put out an interesting piece doing just that. In fact, in the act of advancing some characterizations favorable to his team, he told an actual story, which was pretty good. If you've ever been to Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop in the French Quarter, or caught up with an old friend over beers and shots, or have a strong feeling about how a man should shake a hand, you may enjoy it. While the storytelling inside was kinda fun, the piece at large has a few caveats. First, like many efforts in the difficult endeavor of writing, it went a little long. It's about 3900 words when 3500 probably would have served better. Second, and usually also forgivable, Ramzy still tries to cram in too many extraneous points such that his central one can get lost among them. This one contains, in typical Ohio Statian unnecessary fashion, a stupid use of kiddie porn to hammer home a point already pretty clearly made throughout the rest of the piece.
But it's the characterization of SI writer George Dohrmann I was most interested in for my points in this article. Before reading it, I didn't know much about Dohrmann, other than vague name-recognition as having been affiliated with the reporting on the Clem Haskins cheating scandals at Minnesota earlier this decade and the laughable twitter buzz in advance of his similar work regarding Ohio State earlier this summer. But Ramzy and 'Chevy' have been effective. It's not a wholesale smear of Dohrmann as a person, but I now have more context about the man to consider, including his picture, which I had never seen. It kinda fit the portrayal they made that, whereas his brother Gregg was a Man's Man with straight eyes and a firm handshake, George was mousier, used very little eye contact and he might even notify you, unprompted, that he was a Pulitzer Prize-winner.
But in this modern landscape, it's not only the blogistani authors or the mainstream media who are putting forth their characterizations. Messaging is as fundamental & important to the Power Players of college football as it is to the bloggers and media covering it, and all the decision-makers at Ohio State are no different. And while it's a pet peeve of mine this phrase that 'words mean things, dammit!' (because words, while powerful, are mere tool sets for authors' thinking), I'm with Walker Lee Ashley and believe that actions are the most honest conveyors of meaning. If we take a look at just a very few samples of what Ohio State has said compared to what Ohio State has done, we can see the oceans of gap between characterization and reality.
Said: Tressel fined $250,000.00
Done: Fine waived, Tressel paid $0
Said: Tressel asked to resign
Done: Tressel allowed to retire and collect final month of base pay at $52,250
Now, that's Ohio State and they're very experienced at characterizing their actions differently with their words. They have a long history of contributions to their intricately constructed Web of Plausible Deniability, but they've almost always used those characterizations defensively--as a way to thwart truth-seekers or opponent recruiters. And depending on where you stand in the growing debate about payments to student athletes, that kind of behavior may or may not feel dangerous to you.
But if we flip the page and take a look at what went on down in Lubbock at the end of last season, we can see a whole different level of characterization that not too many folk would describe as benign. You may remember that then-Texas Tech coach, Mike Leach, was accused of locking a concussed player (Adam James, son of ESPN personality and former SMU star Craig James) in an 'electrical closet.' Leach was initially suspended indefinitely and ordered to apologize to James in writing, and when he refused and filed an injunction to be allowed to coach Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl (his attorney disputed the James family & Tech's 'characterization' of the events), he was fired. Leach has since filed suit against both Texas Tech University and ESPN for their reporting of the incidents, and has spent the Spring in Key West working on his new book, Swing Your Sword. He also joined the twitter and did some travel in France, but this week he released excerpts of the book on Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports' The Postgame and they are more than a little intriguing. And definitely pertinent to our discussion of characterization.
Now, granted, these portrayals are wholly Mike Leach's side of the story. That fact is fully acknowledged. But it remains our job, as consumers of all this information floating around in cyberspace, to do our best to comprehend it, digest it and let our personal judgments do the best they can with it all. And if we've learned anything from the comparison of Truth and Story in Ohio State's situation, it's that obtaining copies of the contemporaneous emails is immensely helpful to our challenges in those deliberative tasks.
In the SI excerpt, Leach not only asserts that Adam James went into the electrical closet on his own accord after being specifically told not to by the trainer, but that, when deposed under oath months later, James said he found the incident 'funny' and that he had texted his father while there because he thought that his father would like it. And in the Yahoo excerpt, it gets really yucky, as Leach has included copies of emails his legal team procured that show correspondence between Spaeth Communications, a PR firm hired by Craig James, and Sallie Post, Tech's director of communication and broadcast media and between Spaeth and other story 'managers.' The emails discuss strategies for improving hits to Adam's youtube video taken from inside the closet and even advice for getting the concussion-diagnosing doctor to use language more favorable to their position. It's ugly and implicates a lot of parties who otherwise may have not been terribly suspected of behaving badly.
Which is why it's important that ESPN, ironic protagonist in this case, win their suit against Ohio State to produce the 'various documents' they argue should be made public. We've long known that Ohio State can't be trusted to tell their own story, and the past year has proven that in the cases of Jim Tressel and Terrell Pryor. We know that while as an institution and an athletic culture they are experienced in denial, they can still slip up and make mistakes. Hell, half the OSU fanbase will tell you they can't believe Tressel was dumb enough to get caught doing what 'everybody does' (they'll likely tell you the opposite about Pryor). But what about the rest of the Power Players there? Very few who have seen Gene Smith speak in any of these interviews the past year would be surprised to see incriminating emails turn up with his name on them. But what about the venerable E. Gordon Gee? He's made a very nice career as a University President with a reputation as a powerful fundraiser. Is he also too smart to have incriminated himself in anything salacious by accident? For that matter, what about current coaches Luke Fickell or Dick Doc Tressel, the sweatervest's brother? What has historical written communication been like between all those lads?
Look, I'm not anywhere near experienced enough to make educated guesses as to what the court system will resolve in the email solicitation efforts or how the NCAA will behave with respect to tangible punishments, but I know a good story when I hear one. And every once in awhile I can characterize just as well as the next guy.