Speaking out a 3-pointer for athletes

The morning after the story broke, my journalism class was given an impromptu assignment: Interview five people in the room about their thoughts on the Gophers men’s basketball academic scandal. I don’t know about the rest of the people in the class, but all five people to whom I talked kicked off the interview with virtually the same statement: “I wasn’t surprised.” One even said, “It’s about time they got ’em! I knew it all along.”
If stereotypes about athletes being dumb lingered in the back of everyone’s mind before, they’re grounded in our frontal lobes now.
In a St. Paul Pioneer Press interview, former player David Grim said the scandal has opened the floodgates for so many glib comments about athletes that he can barely stomach it. Literally. Since the story broke, countless “jokesters” have asked him if anyone wrote papers for him when he was at the University. “It really hasn’t gone away,” he said. “I’m so sick of it I’m ready to vomit.”
Luckily for him, he never received the fax that has been sent around, titled “College Entrance Exam for Gopher Athletes.” The spoof fax includes questions like: “Can you explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity? a) yes or b) no.”
Pioneer Press columnist Glenda Holste expects most players would choose option ‘b.’ She finds it strange that we expect athletes who have been “allowed to skip classes for years” to perform well academically, deeming the scandal as “not surprising.”
In light of all this public humiliation, one would expect the players would want to plead their case. In fact, players like Kevin Nathaniel did. When I called him up, he expressed his desire to be interviewed, but there was just one obstacle — I had to call the athletic department and get permission to interview Nathaniel.
The department transferred me to Assistant Coach Charlie Cunningham, who proved to be an impenetrable gatekeeper.
“We want to keep the players out of the public eye for a while,” he said, informing me I could call back in a month or so.
I called Nathaniel back.
“Did you get it cleared up?” he asked, apparently ready to say his piece. I told him he could talk off the record, but I had not received official clearance. He agreed to do so, but said he had to “find something” first and would then call me back. I suppose the thing he had to find was Coach Cunningham’s phone number, because I never heard from him again.
Frustrated, I called another player, Ryan Keating. Once again, he said he was willing to talk, provided the department approved first. Rats!
I decided to give myself three strikes, calling Quincy Lewis, alas, to no avail. “Clem will tell you everything you need to know,” he said.
Players might feel insulted by things like the jokes Grim has heard, the “College Entrance Exam” and Holste’s column, but the department’s muzzling of their perspective is the biggest insult of all.
The department’s lack of faith in the players’ ability to speak without cramming their size thirteens down their own throats was evident long before the scandal. A Daily sports editor once told me that interviewing most players is a painful experience because public relations experts have conditioned them to parrot a handful of phrases in response to an infinite range of questions.
“What went through your mind a split-second before the first jump ball of the season?”
“I just want to give 110 percent.”
Of course, that would probably be better than, say, “nothing.” But then again, if “nothing” is true, then “nothing” should do.
The point is, the athletic department is guilty of not only pampering a group of fully grown, potty-trained men, but also of reinforcing negative stereotypes about them in the process.
Jan Gangelhoff, for instance, explains away the writing of more than 400 papers for these players by saying she “just wanted to help the kids.” Then, as if calling this group of fully grown, potty-trained men kids were not bad enough, she admitted she would never want her own kids to pursue that option if they were put in the same situation.
Sound like a double standard? Not if you think the players cannot take care of themselves.
I have a feeling guys like Kevin Nathaniel can take care of themselves. To assume they cannot and then silence them with social pressure is to give the mob that had assumed the worst of our athletes even before the scandal exactly what they want to hear from the players: nothing. Hearing the players’ side of the story would only detract from the smugness everyone feels.
Players should know by now that the administration has little to offer them in the way of good public relations. After all, wasn’t it their coaches who said, “Don’t worry about school; we’ll take care of it,” in the first place? But they didn’t take care of it, and there is little reason to believe they will.
The only thing about which the athletic department seems to be concerned is its own well-being. Its ban on players’ speech is for self-preservation, not to protect the players.
Athletes can only break out of the negative stereotype that has been reinforced during the scandal by standing on their own two feet. They must do what everyone, including their own coaches, assumes they cannot: fight the power and speak up.

Rob Kuznia’s column might appear on Thursdays. He welcomes comments by e-mail to [email protected]