College Sports Coverage: Out of Bounds?

When Oklahoma State's quarterback was benched, a local columnist suggested he couldn't handle big-game pressure. The episode raises questions about what's acceptable when journalists cover college athletics.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The starting quarterback at Oklahoma State was benched last year. Then a local sports columnist suggested this college player couldn't handle big-game pressure, which brought angry, very public response from the team's head coach, who came to his players' defense. In the process, the episode raised questions about what's acceptable when journalists cover college athletics.

NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: It was the barbaric yawp heard around the sports world.

(Soundbite of movie, "Star Wars")

(Soundbite of Chewbacca yawping)

FOLKENFLIK: Actually, that's Chewbacca from "Star Wars," but Mike Gundy, head coach of the Oklahoma State Cowboys, was no less impassioned after reading about his quarterback, Bobby Reid, last Saturday.

Mr. MIKE GUNDY (Head Coach, Oklahoma State Cowboys): Here's all that kid did: He goes to class. He's respectful to the media. He's respectful to the public, and he's a good kid. And he's not a professional athlete, and he doesn't deserve to be kicked when he's down.

FOLKENFLIK: Gundy was addressing reporters just after his team beat Texas Tech 47 to 45. You might think he'd be in a good mood - not so much.

Mr. GUNDY: That's why I don't read the newspaper, because it's garbage, and the editor that let it come out is garbage.

FOLKENFLIK: And then Gundy said, well, Gundy kept on saying a lot of things that got his videotaped tirade on ESPN repeatedly, and 100,000 hits on YouTube, and links on just about every site a sports nut might visit.

It was a column by Jenni Carlson of The Daily Oklahoman that triggered Gundy's wrath. It described Reid's mother feeding him dinner by the team buses after a game. Carlson wrote, does he have the fire in his belly? Or does he want to be coddled, babied, perhaps even fed chicken?

Like Gundy, Carlson declined to comment for this story, but her paper is standing behind her. And on its Web site, Carlson says, coaches hadn't explained why they benched the QB.

Ms. JENNI CARLSON (Columnist, The Daily Oklahoman): We really tried to pile up the reason as to why Zac Robinson was the guy instead of Bobby Reid.

FOLKENFLIK: In this case, the player is 21. So how tough should sports reporters be? Collegiate football is big business with hundreds of millions of dollars depending on television contracts and merchandising sales. Players get a free ride to college, but little else.

Paul Finebaum says it's all fair game. He's a longtime football columnist for the Mobile Register in Alabama.

Mr. PAUL FINEBAUM (Columnist, Mobile Press-Register): And what the college coach is doing here is he's giving his delusional fan base a green light to just suddenly start teeing off on someone who simply was giving an opinion. And that's all it was, nothing more.

FOLKENFLIK: Over at ESPN, college football analyst Ed Cunningham says people are rewarded for having those brash opinions.

Mr. ED CUNNINGHAM (College Football Analyst, ESPN): But the line that I try to walk - and not perfectly - is say that that was a dumb play, not that that is a dumb player.

FOLKENFLIK: Cunningham says close scrutiny comes with the territory. He played offensive line for the national champion University of Washington football team back in 1991.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I know at my school, we were actually taught how to deal with the media and how to talk to reporters and what on-the-record and off-the-record truly meant.

FOLKENFLIK: Mike Gundy proved to his players that he would defend them, and that may just be why he called an audible last Saturday - this time, on the media.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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Correction Sept. 28, 2007

The audio version of this story said the starting quarterback for Oklahoma State was benched last year. He was benched last week.

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