Oh, Mike Leach.
This guy seems like the most hated figure in football these days. Perhaps it’s for a good reason.
By now, I imagine we’ve all heard the story. Down in Texas, on the Texas Tech football team, there was a kid, Adam James, with a concussion. He spent time inside a dark room. (It’s already nearly impossible to retell the story without using loaded language.) There may never be a consensus on what he was told or if that dark place was locked. Then, somehow, reporters caught wind of James’ complaints and the internal investigation started at the university. A media storm ensued, resulting in somebody discovering that James had a semi-famous dad who did broadcasting for ESPN. Former football head coach Leach is now unemployed (although certainly not in dire straits), considered a scumbag, and the James family name is associated with entitlement, exemptions, and being a wuss.
That ended poorly, don’t you think? Would general public opinion of Leach be different if ESPN—the network with a serious conflict of interest in this story—hadn’t been involved? Would Leach have kept his job at Texas Tech?
I think it’s a definite possibility.
I looked to ESPN’s Ombudsman, Don Ohlmeyer, to explain the television coverage that the network gave the issue, from the breaking news report to the Alamo bowl coverage. I found that he and I saw exactly the same thing—emotions and personal relationships that created a barrier between the information and its audience. Issues with ESPN’s validity began far before the bowl game was played: The network apparently had no misgivings about letting dad Craig James do the commentary on his own son’s bowl game up until the moment that Adam made headlines in a bad way. Ohlmeyer backs me up on this one—if it is a nationally-televised game, it is completely inappropriate to have a relative doing the color commentary. It’s unfair to half the audience, it’s hardly unbiased, and it’s a situation that doesn’t lend itself to journalistic ethos.
The broadcast of the Alamo Bowl itself—the first time that the Texas Tech football team would be broadcast since the news of the James-Leach conflict broke—didn’t show any more thoughtful decisions or reporting. There were statements made by the announcers about Leach’s character that were not counterbalanced by any descriptions of Adam James’ behavior. It violates an investigative journalism principle: When it comes to reporting, it’s important to remember that context is everything. If you’re telling a story, you always need to start at the beginning. If you don’t start from the first indication of the problem, you can’t be sure you’ve covered all of the relevant information.
Maybe the resulting broadcast was intentionally biased as a show of support—after all, only a few days prior, ESPN had given Leach an open mic on television where he thrashed James’ character and reputation in front of millions of viewers. It’s not an example of reporting a balanced account of the situation, either, but at least it came straight from the horse’s mouth, no conjecturing or editorializing necessary.
Given, when Leach went on record mouthing off about the behavior of a kid on his team, little editorializing was necessary. When it comes to credibility and professionalism, Leach dug his own grave. There’s something to be said for defending yourself, but there’s also something to be said for saying “no comment.” And, in all reality, if you defend yourself by making potentially slanderous allegations against a kid half your age, you’re writing your own obituary. It’s a lesson that I like to think of as learning to act like a grown-up. There are certain things that society deems acceptable and just in the world, and embarrassing others as a defense mechanism is not one of them.
Learning how to act like an adult is very much an acquired virtue. For example, tact gets more valuable with age. Adam James is getting to learn about that—did he have to file his complaints right before a bowl game? Absolutely not. He jeopardized the team’s future success and the Alamo Bowl game for his fellow teammates, and I imagine that they won’t let him forget it. The media is teaching James the lessons that his family didn’t seem to teach him well enough, like what happens when you play with fire on national TV. It’s a traumatic way to learn, but being embarrassed because of your childish actions in front of an audience is a great way to remind yourself to start acting like an adult—a takeaway that ESPN, Leach, and James can all now boast to have internalized.
Lisa Lewis is a Barnard College senior majoring in Economics.