Jim Souhan Isn’t the Problem

NEW SLAUGHTERI don’t know Jim Souhan, the Star Tribune sports columnist who kinda stepped in it by saying that the University of Minnesota should, at the very least, keep epileptic seizure-prone football coach Jerry Kill out of public view. But I have some idea how he got himself into a predicament that unleashed a hailstorm of blowback.

But first, let’s be clear, risking and then taking a hammering in the court of public opinion is not always a bad thing. Often enough it is quite the opposite. If no one ever cares enough to complain about you or argue against your point of view you’re really just writing Chamber of Commerce ad copy … which, unfortunately, is what a lot of today’s news managers regard as responsible journalism. The irony with this incident is that Souhan, filing from the sports/entertainment department, over-exercised one of the last remaining licenses left to push an informed, personal point of view in regional newspapers. He over-played a license the Star Tribune and other papers have steadily hobbled in their metro and opinion pages.

Boiled to its essence, the criticism of Souhan is that his tone was cloddish, an affront to both epileptics and common decency. And it’s easy to see how readers got that impression.

Here are some of the problematic lines and why:

” … where the University of Minnesota’s football program, and by extension the entire school, became the subject of pity and ridicule.” (Is “ridicule” really the word you’re looking for here? “Ridiculed” by who? What sort of thoughtless yob sees any level of humor in an epileptic seizure? What percentage of even our local, get-a-life football fandom engages in that kind of “ridicule”?)

“Kill suffers a seizure on game day as the coach of the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium exactly as often as he wins a Big Ten game. He’s 4-for-16 in both categories.” (Souhan’s working a context where Kill’s health issues are bad for the football program. But by elevating Kill’s winning percentage to the same level of concern as his health diminishes the appearance of concern for the latter. It’s what you call “playing too cute for your own good.”)

“No one who buys a ticket to TCF Bank Stadium should be rewarded with the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground. This is not how you compete for sought-after players and entertainment dollars.” (College sports’ money issues are legendary and scandalous, even in a football wasteland like Minnesota. But again, mashing the two together — money and a man’s health — is callous, at best, and asking for trouble. Besides, as at least one commenter noted, fans pay top dollar every weekend with some expectation that they’ll see a 20 year-old kid carted off the field with shredded knee or worse.)

“Kill is unable to fulfill his duties.” (Really? I don’t think Souhan came close to proving that point. Or even trying.)

What I mean by the special license sports columnists have is this. They are writing for a heavily male audience that enjoys provocative writing reflective of a “man’s world”, i.e. a place where you call ’em as you see ’em, where lousy performance and incompetence are ridiculing offenses and where everyone’s tough enough to play again tomorrow after getting their feelings hurt. Look around the sportswriting landscape today. It’s one of the more talent-rich and compelling landscapes in the mainstream press because writers aren’t pulling punches, slathering their copy with consensus-conscious euphemisms and turning a blind eye to hypocrisy and incompetence. The contrast, as I say, with most papers’ metro and opinion columns is pretty damned stark.

But every provocateur risks going steps too far. It’s very much the nature of the broader media world today, outside stodgy daily newspapers. There’s career traction in upping the ante on “calling ’em, as you see ’em.” Hell, push it further and there might even be another paycheck in it, from sports radio, which is far less concerned with hurting feelings and sounding cloddish than mom and dad’s morning paper.

Souhan, who is still living in the shadow of Dan Barreiro, a guy who flexed a dagger with the best of them and has been well rewarded for it, simply “over-exploited” his provocateur license. It happens when you try to push itr “to the next level” to borrow a tired sports cliche. But there was no need to flex tough with an epileptic.

But my larger point here is the irony that Souhan style calling-out of sacred cows is now entirely the province of the sports department … where adults write about games.

The Star Tribune, which memorably prohibited its columnists from writing about the final stages of the presidential campaign in 2008, has taken a route much like every other regional, second-tier paper, avoiding partisan controversy by focusing on stories and themes with much higher levels of consensus. This, as I’ve said before, despite the presence of Michele Bachmann, and to a (slightly) lesser degree, Tim Pawlenty, people who should have been to any healthy “call ’em, as you see ’em” newspaper columnist what Les Steckel, Norm Green, Mike Lynn, Ron Davis and J. R. Rider have been to the sports department.

The fair question has always been, “Are you exercising journalistic responsibility by ignoring or grossly under-playing flagrant, unprecedented dysfunction and dishonesty by the highest-profile characters on your beat?”

It’s hard to get too upset over an outburst from the toy department, when the adults are hamstrung by their unwillingness to get seriously tough with people who actually matter.

We Are Such Chumps for the NFL.

I have some sympathy for Jim Souhan, the Star Tribune sports columnist who so royally stepped in it last week. If you read the Strib — go ahead, rip away — you know that Souhan tore a GOP Rep. by the name of Dean Urdahl a new one for lacking the brains to NOT ask Vikings management why state taxpayers should build a stadium for a billionaire owner. Souhan descended on Urdahl like a starved turkey vulture on a fresh pork chop, basically calling him every name short of a toe-sucking pedophile … without checking the transcript enough to note that Urdahl’s question was couched as “a question a I hear a lot … ” and he ended up voting for the stadium in that particular committee.

So … Souhan spent the rest of his week taking shots from David Brauer, Urdahl in the Strib and the usual newspaper-hating trolls.

But amid an outbreak of the brain-eating contagion known as journalistic group think, what’s a poor sports guy supposed to do? Souhan is a team guy covering team sports for Team Strib, and Team Strib has not been shy about presenting a $973 million taxpayer-financed Vikings stadium as an unalloyed good/benefit/life-affirming necessity for the community of Minnesota. I’ll assume Souhan actually believes what he wrote. But he’s in a job where I very seriously doubt he or anyone of his stature with the paper could get anything skeptical much less negative about the stadium published.

The paper’s beat reporters, Mike Kaszuba in particular, have done a respectable job covering the shifting tides of fate, but the Op-Ed page and Sid and everyone else attached to sports long ago slashed their palms, grasped hands and chanted a blood oath to see only upside to giving the Vikings and the NFL … essentially the same deal the league slapped down in front of our elected leaders months ago. Oh, ten or twenty million has shifted here and there, but fundamentally we’re still talking the largest public subsidy for a private business in the state’s history … and we’re not talking taxpayer cash for a world-class lab to cure cancer … we’re talking about a football stadium/TV studio controlled by one of the wealthiest entertainment monopolies on the planet.

Mainstream news organizations still have this quaint and kinda cute ‘Marcus Welby-ish’ idea that they have an obligation to lead their community through life’s difficult decisions. Not all the time, mind you. There are exceptions.

If it means looking too close at what a noted arts philanthropist has done with his stock options, or how his gargantuan health insurance organization has sucked hundreds of millions of dollars of sheer profit out of a bloated and thoroughly gamed medical industry that kind of discomfiting tale can be told by The Wall Street Journal. Likewise, a warm and nurturing hometown media player wants to lay back on the appalling rhetorical dishonesty of its highest profile politician as she makes a fool of herself running for president. Ditto connecting the dots between the most fervid of the anti-government crowd and the constant government assistance they require to keep the electricity on and their TVs tuned to FoxNews.

Those kinds of things are messy and rancorous and make for unpleasant cocktail party interactions.

But … a gorgeous stadium … a technological marvel … a visual icon … for Our Team? You can’t be pro-active enough!

Let me be blunt. The Strib’s behavior in regards to its drumbeat boosterism for the NFL’s stadium package has been disgraceful, if only for how much they and by extension we look like a bunch of chumps. (Local TV is of course worse. But why would you expect otherwise? The various stations really should dress their anchors in culottes, tight sweaters — the women and men both — and have them shake pom-poms from the news set, for the non-existent level of skepticism they’ve applied to their “coverage”).

What appalls me most is that no one in Minnesota — politicians or mainstream press — seems to have seriously applied even minimal bargaining pressure on the NFL. To hell with the Wilfs, the other 31 owners are the people we’re really dealing with here. There was a time when big city newspaper columnists, sports and otherwise, could be counted on to be skeptical and intensely curmudgeonly about any slick suit who jetted in from the coast making artfully veiled threats about “lists of potential buyers”. Not so anymore. Certainly not in this case anyway. Those writers who aren’t sitting out the fight — over the largest taxpayer subsidy in state history — are all for it, as it was presented to us by the NFL.

Ask yourself, given the bargaining skills evident in this stadium scheme, would you have the Mayor, the Governor or Ted Mondale negotiate a trade for a used Hyundai for you? The concept of leverage is apparently a foreign language to them. And their embarrassing obeisance to NFL royalty should be tailor made for constant, hilarious public mockery.

Reading through reams and reams of stadium coverage and punditry for The Glean over at MinnPost, I was struck last week by a story at Forbes (radical, anti-capitalist, hippie rag) reminding its readers that despite the NFL’s protestations to the contrary, expansion is an option the league at the very least wants to protect, and an expansion fee of upwards of a billion dollars would be a lot … a lot … tastier split among the NFL’s 32 owners than the $200 million relocation fee they might … might … squeeze out of whoever buys the Vikings from Zygi Wilf and “asks” to move them to L.A.

Moreover, if I’m AEG tycoon Phil Anschutz in Los Angeles, and I’m watching the drama in Minnesota, I’m thinking to myself, “The NFL has no choice but to play tough in Minnesota. The league knows it is courting serious financial pain if it doesn’t slap down and snuff out the precedent of using its own money to build stadiums in medium markets. They have no choice but to move the Vikings rather than add more league money to that deal. Well shit, I’m a fool if I don’t play that to my advantage. When a guy has to do something, has no other viable choice, that’s when the worm turns in your favor. I’ll make ’em sweat that relocation fee down to a hell of a lot less than $200 million … just so they can show Minnesota and everyone else who rules this island.”

But instead of anything from our principal leaders or press suggesting we play tougher with the NFL, we get the lamest rationale of all — and this time I’m not talking about how with the Vikings goes our “major league status”. No. The lamest of all is the scary story about how five years after the Vikings leave we’ll pay half again as much or more to build a stadium for an expansion team.

Really? How opaque is the bubble you’re living in if you can even imagine his state will pop for vastly more taxpayer money to lure back an entertainment option 98% of the fans only watch on TV?