Covering athletics at a Division I school like Minnesota requires a number of elements to be a success. First and foremost is access to the athletes. Without cooperation from the players, my job doesn’t exist.
Currently, beat reporters covering the Minnesota football team for the Pioneer Press are getting the cold shoulder from the players.
The players have agreed to not give one-on-one interviews with the Pioneer Press because of the now infamous May 18, “Plantation Cartoon” drawn by the paper’s editorial columnist, Kirk Anderson.
The cartoon, which the Minnesota Daily has decided not to re-publish, shows three African-American basketball players playing in front of a group of white fans. The cartoon is titled “The Plantation.”
There’s a caption above one of the fans that says, “Of course, we don’t let them learn to read or write!”
The Pioneer Press received an enormous amount of feedback that included letters to the editor both for and against the images the cartoon represented. The St. Paul Department of Human Rights even filed charges of discrimination against the paper because of the cartoon.
The cartoon affected members of the football team enough that players approached co-captain Tyrone Carter and linebacker Sean Hoffman to voice their disgust with the cartoon.
According to Hoffman, coach Glen Mason told the players they could take their “own stance whether or not we wanted to talk or not.
“Unified, the team came together and said, `Nope. Until there is an apology we won’t say a word to them,'” Hoffman said.
Carter said the cartoon showed a lack of respect and even talking about it still upsets him greatly.
“They just think of us as dogs or whatever you want to call it,” he said of the Pioneer Press. “I’m a man, so give me a fair shot just like you got a fair shot. Don’t treat me differently than you would treat someone else just because I’m a minority.
“Just as easy as they printed that cartoon in there, they can print an apology that lets everybody know they’re sorry. Until they do that I won’t talk to them.”
Ron Clark, the editorial page editor, said he contacted the University about sitting down with the players to talk about the issue, but was told any further discussions would be “counter-productive.”
Clark said an apology will not come because he said the editorials the paper publishes always offend someone. Clark says that if his department started to apologize each time somebody’s toes got stepped on, “it would cheapen the whole notion of the public apology, and would probably cause some confusion as to what an opinions page is in the first place.”
Clark and Anderson both said if they could do it over again, they would re-think the use of the word plantation and include white players as well as black.
They both said they don’t understand why the football team refuses to talk when the cartoon was aimed at the basketball program.
Anderson said he knew when he drew the cartoon that it would be controversial, but had no idea it would create the stir it did.
He said the discussion about players being used by universities for monetary gains from athletic endeavors is not controversial. However, the plantation metaphor is.
Pioneer Press Sports Editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz said he doesn’t understand the uproar because the college athlete-as-slave comparisons have existed for years.
“The metaphor for athletes as slaves has been around ever since the movement to pay college athletes (originated),” said Ruiz.
He said he was surprised the players got excited about an argument that is around 10 years old.
Ruiz refuses to call the players’ decision a boycott because they talk to Pioneer Press reporters in press conference settings, but not one-on-one situations. He said it is a bizarre chain of events and called it “one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen.”
Despite Ruiz downplaying the players’ enforcement of the “boycott,” Carter and Hoffman’s response clearly show the cartoon cut deeper than Ruiz thinks.
“Nobody in this world is bigger than anyone else,” Hoffman said. “And that’s what hurts; when one person tries to take a stance that assumes they are higher up than anyone else — whether they mean it or not.
“That’s probably the hardest thing, is having a lot of good friends on this team and seeing them being hurt — it’s just no good.”
And while those are strong words, Carter speaks the strongest.
“I’m here to play football and get an education,” he said. “I’m not here to start any trouble or get into a conflict with the press. I work hard. My mother, my father, my grandma — we all worked hard to get me where I’m at.
“I don’t need anyone to put that type of stuff in the paper that says we’re like slaves for our coach. We don’t look at it that way. We’re minorities at this school and we try to work hard to be on top and get an education, and if they want to put something like that in the paper to make you feel bad about yourself — I’ll just cut off all ties with them. I won’t even talk to them or relate to them. Let them think what they want to think and I’ll keep my own opinion to myself.”
As a sports reporter, I understand the frustration that obstructed access to athletes would have on me. I also live by the right to have freedom of the press.
However, knowing players on the team like Carter and Hoffman blurs the both the lines of color and the role of the press.
Michael Dougherty covers football and can be reached at [email protected]