Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Media | Sports

February 25, 2009

The Journalist and the Public Servant

Ken Krayeske, rabble rouser, reflects on his press-conference dust-up with UConn coach Jim Calhoun.

Craig Fehrman

Members of the younger generation of sportswriters—notably online voices like Will Leitch and Bill Simmons—love to point to the banality of postgame press conferences. Based on the one following UConn's recent win over South Florida, though, these events may have value yet—not for what they reveal about coaches or athletes, but for what they reveal about sportswriters.

Krayeske with Connecticut governor Jodi Rell. Photo by John Murphy.
"It took guts to stand there. It's not easy to ask a powerful man a difficult question."

Krayeske with Connecticut governor Jodi Rell. Photo by John Murphy.

This win was the 799th of Jim Calhoun's career, and his 551st at UConn. Yet the first postgame question, from a freelance journalist named Ken Krayeske, who got into the room with a photo credential he'd obtained a week before, surprised even Calhoun. "Considering that you're the highest-paid state employee and there's a $2 billion budget deficit," Krayeske began, "do you think"—at which point Calhoun interjected, perhaps humorously, "Not a dime back." As Krayeske tried to reformulate the question, Calhoun moved from sarcastic to annoyed to belligerent. (It didn't help when Krayeske brought up Calhoun's personal endorsement deal with Comcast.)

Since every other story about the dustup devotes its third paragraph to Krayeske's past, this one will, too. Born and raised in Connecticut, Krayeske is a 36-year-old "writer and political activist"; he can trace his progressive street cred to time spent on a Ralph Nader campaign and, in 2007, an arrest for breaching the peace and interfering with an officer during Governor Jodi Rell's inaugural parade.

We might hope for a better deliverer of the question, then, to say nothing of a better time and place. Still, the reaction to Krayeske and his larger point, from both Calhoun and his coterie of sportswriters, has been troubling. One beat writer dubbed Krayeske "The Last Brave Journalist"—a brave bit of scorn, since his own paper's parent company just filed for bankruptcy. Another local headline read "Krayeske grills Calhoun over salary," somehow turning the coach into a meek victim.

Anyone who watched the exchange knows this description is insane. It's also an example of how, for many sportswriters, the locker room stands as a sacred space, a space where outsiders are unwelcome and no one ought to mention that the economy is imploding. This mindset becomes especially clear at the interview's 43-second mark, when Krayeske turns his question on the media. "If these guys covered this stuff," says Krayeske, "I wouldn't have to do it." The reporters emit a collective groan, and their follow-up coverage has shown exactly what they think of anyone foolish enough to tamper with their approach. (It's worth noting that this debate doesn't break cleanly along the print/online or old/young divides—debates never do. Leitch's former site, all of four years old, took plenty of cheap shots at Krayeske, while the most reasoned take appeared in the pages of the Hartford Courant, age 245.)

Ultimately, Krayeske and Calhoun both come off as caricatures in the interview—the whiny liberal agitator and the surly, entitled, win-at-all-costs coach. This is too bad, since their exchange could have addressed a serious set of issues in a state that's hurting all over—including in attendance to UConn sporting events.

After speaking with Krayeske by phone, I'd say he suffers from approximately half a messiah complex—he might not consider himself a savior, but he certainly sees himself as a martyr. He tends to talk fast, in disjointed, excited fragments. In fact, the longer we talked, the more distracted he seemed; at one point, he seemed to be reading and muttering about blog posts on the exchange. Still, and importantly, Krayeske went out of his way to avoid trashing the press and its coverage of him—and throughout our conversation, he remained thoughtful, passionate, and sincere. This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: At one point in your exchange, Calhoun says, "If you want to talk to me outside, I'd be more than happy to." Now, given his demeanor, this sounds vaguely like a threat, but I have to ask: Did you first try to approach him in a less public setting?

Ken Krayeske: In 1998, when I used to write for the Hartford Advocate, I asked Calhoun, "What's the endorsement deal with Nike worth?" He said, "What's your salary at the Advocate?" And I said, "$28,000. So what's the deal with Nike worth?" He wouldn't tell me. I tried talking to him like that once, and I won't try it again. He didn't deal in good faith.

Gelf Magazine: But your new question was linked to the recession. It was very topical—

Ken Krayeske: But my question in 1998 was linked to Nike's child-labor practices, so what's the difference? For somebody in Vietnam making a dime a day, it's always a recession.

Gelf Magazine: Still, the Nike deal falls under Calhoun's jurisdiction. Wouldn't a question about salaries be better directed to Jeff Hathaway [UConn's Athletic Director] or Michael Hogan [UConn's President]?

Ken Krayeske: Did Dennis Erickson need to be asked to give back some of his salary? He's the head coach of Arizona State's football program. [Note: Erickson's move was a "mandatory furlough."] UConn isn't the only public university that's hurting for money right now.
The thing is, it's not so much about the money as the symbolic value. My tuition at the law school is going up next year, so I'm sharing in the pain. I'm part of the UConn community and I know I need to chip in. Why can't Calhoun?

Gelf Magazine: That seems like a reasonable suggestion. But you're also a guy with a lot of newspaper experience, and you had to know this exchange would play as grandstanding, right?

Ken Krayeske: Anybody who tries to make it about me misses the debate I want to have. You should see the emails I've been getting. The most creative is that I look like a homeless man with a dead squirrel on my head—

Gelf Magazine: They should have saved that one for Blagojevich.

Krayeske vs. Calhoun

Ken Krayeske: And it's Calhoun's response—telling me to "shut up," calling me "stupid"—that perpetuates the uncivil discourse and the attacks on people like me, people who are just asking questions. I'm concerned that we aren't having a civilized debate here.

Gelf Magazine: I take your point here, too. But was the first question at a postgame press conference really the right venue for a civilized debate?

Ken Krayeske: I've asked Rell hard questions. I've asked [former Connecticut governor] John Rowland hard questions. Did any of them yell at me? There are very few public figures who have permission to respond in the manner that Calhoun did.
Personally, I don't like being called "stupid." Why does he have the right to respond to me like that? If I ask the question to the Commissioner of the Department of Social Services, he can't respond like that. So why can Calhoun? Why do we give him a pass? He has a terrible graduation rate, he has students who get arrested, and he makes a lot of money. We give him a pass because he wins and it makes us feel better about ourselves.

Gelf Magazine: But don't politicians and the political media operate along different lines than their sports equivalents?

Ken Krayeske: Yeah, one of [the UConn beat writers] came up to me and said, "You're like the Iraqi reporter who threw the shoe at Bush." I'm a volunteer, man, and these guys are professionals. So, if they ask him a hard question he's going to shut off their access. He's done this for years. He did it to me when I worked for the Advocate. I wrote a tough column, and then he said I couldn't interview players anymore.

Gelf Magazine: Is it fair to say that this is about more than access? The reaction to your question seems to suggest that most sportswriters don't want to talk about this stuff.

Ken Krayeske: That is a fair statement. I happen to be more of a political reporter, though I cut my teeth as a sportswriter. These guys are saying it's out of bounds. Why are you crying foul? They set up these rules—who made the rules? —but we have to ask the difficult questions. College sports isn't about bringing in money, it's about educating and developing young people. Or, if it is about running a business, that changes the tenor of the conversation. Then, it's, why aren't the kids getting paid?

Gelf Magazine: You've been asking for a chance at civil discourse, so how would you have responded to Calhoun's argument that his program brings in so much money?

Ken Krayeske: That is a red herring. Does that mean that the taxman gets a percentage of the revenues he collects? Does the state cop get 10 percent of every ticket that he writes? The logic of Calhoun's argument here is badly flawed.

Gelf Magazine: But wouldn't Calhoun respond that he could go to another school willing to pay up, and that UConn would slip back into the doldrums of the early '80s?

Ken Krayeske: He's going to leave soon anyway. He's been here 20 years. You know, I used to work at McDonald's when I was a kid, and I learned pretty quickly that sometimes we're just cogs in a machine. Calhoun doesn't get the endorsements without the taxpayer funding. [UConn football coach] Randy Etzel doesn't get his $1.5 million salary unless John Rowland bonds their stadium with taxpayer money. We'll get by without Calhoun.

Gelf Magazine: You don't think the university will seek out a new coach with a similar reputation, and thus a similar salary, in order to keep this $12-million-dollar machine rolling?

Ken Krayeske: Does it bring in $12 million? I'm not convinced those numbers are true. The Department of Education says the program generated $7.3 million in 2007-2008. [See the numbers here.] Now, I didn't have those figures at the ready. I wish I would have—I wish I would have been the perfect debater. But I have a lot of things on my plate.

Gelf Magazine: I'm not sure you would have had a chance to get those numbers in edgewise. Does it bother you that the press has portrayed you as the buffoon—the one who went over the line—and not Calhoun?

Ken Krayeske: I expected it. Every story that ran mentioned the arrest for approaching Governor Rell. And we all know that's a bullshit story—and you can quote me as saying "bullshit" because I really don't care. I was on the state police's watch list, and I didn't belong on it. But I understand that the arrest's going to be in my obituary, that it's going to follow me around forever.

Gelf Magazine: Well, other than avoiding watch lists, what advice do you have for journalists who want to run a similar question by their coaches?

Ken Krayeske: What I want people to do is find their center and find their courage to ask the hard questions. Trust me, it took guts to stand there. I had a knot in my stomach the whole time it was going on. It's not easy to ask a powerful man a difficult question. Hopefully, now that Calhoun has made a fool of himself, other coaches will see that they're on the hot seat.

Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is working on a PhD in English at Yale.

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Article by Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is working on a PhD in English at Yale.

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