Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Media | Sports

April 28, 2009

The Mighty Pen

Student sportswriter Michael Daly stood up to his college's athletic department—and won.

Craig Fehrman

Maybe it's because Terrell Owens was trying to join a team instead of get thrown off one; maybe it's because we're in Year Two of the post-Bonds era; maybe it's because the NBA's dress code is finally making a difference. Whatever the reason, these last few months have seen a shift in sports infighting, from coach vs. player to coach vs. journalist.

The most prominent example of this came when Ken Krayeske asked UConn's Jim Calhoun about his salary in relation to the state's budget crisis. Last Wednesday, though, the revolution reached our children. Michael Daly, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and the managing editor of the Royal Purple, its weekly student paper, wrote an op-ed titled "Spoiled athletes need reality check." The school's football coach, Lance Leipold, summarily banned his players and coaches from talking to the paper. In other words, he pulled a Calhoun.

Michael Daly
"I'm glad it happened for our paper, but it put a great university in the spotlight for something negative."

Michael Daly

While Krayeske asked Calhoun one question and wanted, in his own words, a merely "symbolic" response, Daly wrote an incisive indictment of his school's Division III athletics program. After describing a gym employee who had to call the cops because an athlete "simply didn't want to perform the laborious task of handing [his ID] over," Daly argued that "some Warhawk athletes do receive treatment their non-athlete peers are not afforded." Of course, that's true at just about every college, and Daly expanded to a larger point:

The guilty party usually isn't the typical student-athlete. It's really not even the few who misbehave or accept preferential treatment. The villains are the "adults"—the coaches and administrators—who send the message [that] it's acceptable to behave how you want because you can run fast or jump high.

These are serious accusations that deserve a serious response. Instead, Leipold's reactions ranged from "this is [expletive deleted] bullshit…it's going to be a bitch to try to cover football next season" to the classy "Go cover soccer."

University officials must have loved seeing this from their former star quarterback and current two-time national coach of the year, but the most surprising thing about this situation is just how quickly it blew up and then blew over. The Royal Purple issue hit the racks and the 'net Tuesday night around 11, and Daly says his op-ed was "instantly our most-read story." On Wednesday afternoon, Leipold called the paper's sports editor twice and sent an email to school officials. After a staff meeting, the paper ran a second story with Leipold's ban and profanity. "We posted it by 11:30 p.m. and it exploded on campus," says Daly. "I forwarded the story to all the major media outlets in Wisconsin."

The first outlet to contact Daly was actually the nearby Jefferson County Daily Union, but the national media—and the university's PR department—quickly followed. Romensko linked to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's story about the squabble at 11:10 a.m., and then, at 12:24 p.m., to a university press release detailing Leipold's apology. Surely this is, if nothing else, a parable for both the speed of internet flareups and the fear of national backlash.

The press release with Leipold's apology came out right after Gelf emailed Daly its first batch of interview questions, which underscores what's interesting about the outcome—the coach's reaction at first seemed like the story, but in the end the story is that a journalist won. Daly told Gelf about the fallout from his column, why he'd rather stay positive, and what he plans on doing after graduation.

Gelf Magazine: Based on your Facebook profile ("Political Views: Aaron Rodgers"; "Religious Views: Ryan Braun"), you seem to follow local sports quite passionately. So, first, is CC Sabathia the Antichrist? And second, how important are sports in general, and football in specific, on Whitewater's campus?

Michael Daly: Sabathia would have to be a moron to turn down that kind of money.
Sports around here are a pretty big deal. It's one of the most successful Division III athletic programs in the nation—in just about every sport, not just football. Football is the big one, though, the one that draws the biggest crowds and national attention. They've been in the national championship on ESPN for four years in a row. The vast majority of the athletes and coaches are great people and good students.

Gelf Magazine: Student comments on your op-ed seem pretty positive (and pretty frequent). How has the campus reacted to this story? How have professors? Administrators?

Michael Daly: It's been a pretty huge reaction. I haven't heard from any teachers because I haven't been in class. I'm in the newspaper office right now [on Thursday], and I've been bombarded by phone calls, meetings, emails, and interviews about this. Most weeks, the most-read story on our site will have 500-700 reads. The two stories on this topic have almost 6,000 now, and they've been posted for only a day. [The Royal Purple has a print circulation of about 7,000.] Also, the major media outlets in Wisconsin have picked it up, along with Sports Illustrated and CBS Sportsline.

Gelf Magazine: Most people probably read about this in Milwaukee's Journal-Sentinel, but that city is 50 miles from Whitewater. So, if Coach Leipold succeeds in keeping the Royal Purple off the beat, who would even cover the team?

"I hope this is a step in a battle I've had to fight before, and that is getting some people within our administration to understand that campus newspapers are not PR."
Michael Daly: A few local papers do—the Wisconsin State Journal sometimes, the Jefferson Daily Union, the Janesville Gazette. But Coach Leipold has since stepped off his initial statement.

Gelf Magazine: Can you talk about any previous interactions with Coach Leipold?

Michael Daly:He's always been pleasant in my interactions and makes himself readily available. But, understandably, the athletic department is sensitive when stories run and contain negativity. That's their job and we understand that. But he's always been polite.

Gelf Magazine: Did you expect the story to generate this much attention?

Michael Daly: I half-expected a phone call from the athletic director, but the scale this has grown to—the staff and I had absolutely no idea. We had discussions about the piece beforehand, and initially weren't even sure who would write it. But we did agree it was something that should be publicized.

Gelf Magazine: So what's happening now?

Michael Daly: After the statement was released, the athletic director and Leipold met with me, the editor-in-chief, the sports editor, and our two news editors. Coach Leipold was respectful and took responsibility for the way he reacted, but he and the AD both voiced their concerns with the column. We just want to move forward and put it behind us at this point.

Gelf Magazine: Really? Your op-ed always had a playful bite (the lede: "Not often are you afforded the opportunity to compare UW-Whitewater's sports to a typical Division I athletic program"), so it seems like wanting to "move forward" is tantamount to backing off your argument.

Michael Daly: I'm not backing off it. I wrote it to raise a point and I think that was done. I'm glad it happened for our paper, to get that kind of attention, but you have to consider it put a great university in the spotlight for something negative. And a coach who's been successful and professional and respectful may never be able to entirely shake a mistake he made. And I know some of the athletes feel they were all painted with one brush, though I don't think that's the case. It certainly wasn't the intention.

Gelf Magazine: Well, what do you hope the story and reaction accomplishes?

Michael Daly: The response speaks for itself. Based on the supportive emails and phone calls I've gotten, a lot of people felt this way, so I have no regrets. I would do it again.
As far as what changes here, I hope this is a step in a battle I've had to fight before, and that is getting some people within our administration to understand that campus newspapers are not PR. They are there so people can learn to be reporters and writers. You have to take the negative with the positive. And most of what we report, most of what I reported, was overwhelmingly positive in the past two years.

Gelf Magazine: So what are your plans for after graduation?

Michael Daly: I'm done May 13, and I'm just looking to get that first job. I'd prefer to do something in communications to utilize my writing skills outside of journalism.

Gelf Magazine: Why outside journalism?

Michael Daly: Simply put, the industry is dying. The economy is terrible, but no one has it worse than journalists right now. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense for me to go into it, given the climate and lack of job security. I'm willing to leave Wisconsin and would consider just about any job right now, but journalism isn't attractive.

Craig Fehrman

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

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- Sports
- posted on Apr 29, 09

Why is a guy like Leipold even still the coach after this? Whitewater deserves better than that.

- Sports
- posted on Apr 30, 09
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Article by Craig Fehrman

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

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