A couple of years ago at a WNBA finals game in Sacramento, a fellow writer and I got to talking about something that I’ve always found difficult to discuss. It was a relief to talk to her about it, because she understood exactly what I meant and had similar feelings about it.
Here’s what it was: We agreed that it’s hard to write columns that sound critical of people without questioning whether you really have the “right” to do it.
I know this may seem counter to the view many people have of the media. And that’s probably because it seems most columnists don’t seem to ever have second thoughts about this. They have a column, it’s their opinion and if you don’t like it, they don’t care.
Or at least they act like they don’t care. I think it may bother a lot of columnists more than they let on when readers e-mail to say, “I think you’re completely wrong,” or variations thereof.
I can’t even try to fake that I don’t care. Of course it bugs me when people don’t like or are angry about what I write. But it’s something you get used to and expect as a journalist. Ultimately, though, the one type of reader reaction that bothers me most is when people think I’ve unjustly criticized someone.
Because I always come back to the question: Did I have a right to do it? Should I have done it?
One could say that in the Internet age, everyone has the opportunity to have a forum and can post opinions on anything. So why would I worry if I have a “right” to say anything?
Well, because when you have a media forum, it still carries some weight. And it’s a weight I always feel is heaviest when it involves writing something that is critical or perceived as critical.
All this comes up in the wake of the Diana Taurasi situation and a column I wrote for ESPN.com in which I said she shouldn’t play in the WNBA’s All-Star Game and should receive the maximum suspension that the league’s guidelines allow.
That was my opinion, but obviously, it has no bearing on what the team or league does. The Mercury announced Thursday that Taurasi would be suspended two games, July 18 and 22, and the WNBA said it would take no additional action. So she might indeed play in the All-Star Game on July 25.
I like Taurasi a lot; I’ve always said that and always will. She’s done an amazing amount for the sport. Last week, I was talking about women’s hoops with my friend Joe Posnanski, and I said that Taurasi was pretty much the ultimate “winner.” And that if I had to pick someone to play to save my life, there’s a good chance I’d pick her.
What I wrote on ESPN.com was difficult to do. But I feel like as a columnist about women’s basketball, I needed to do it. I’ve written many, many positive things about Taurasi over the years, and I’m sure I’ll write many more. But I think the released information that Taurasi’s blood-alcohol level was .17 was stunning … she wasn’t near the legal limit, she was well over it.
To me, appearing in an All-Star Game is a privilege, an honor … and thus is something that reasonably can be withheld when an athlete’s conduct is detrimental to her team and the league. It’s a statement that what you’ve done was reckless, and maybe you need to think about that while you are separated from the friends and peers whom you normally would be having fun with during a game.
I go back to a story which may sound a bit trivial, and it is quite personal, but I tell it because it had so much impact on my life. When I was about 6, my mom was making a long drive with my little sister and I in the back seat. It was about a 7-hour round trip for her, and she was tired and tense. And we were being little brats, fighting with each other the way most kids do in the car at times.
Well, she’d had enough of hearing us and said, “Stop,” and we did … for a little while. But then we started again, and she said, “Stop or you won’t go to the carnival this weekend.”
It was a traveling carnival, the kind where they set up a half-dozen rides and game booths and cotton-candy stands. Pretty cheesy stuff, but to a 6-year-old in a small town, it was one of the major highlights in life. I guess I didn’t believe my mom would really take the carnival away from us.
So we didn’t really stop bugging each other, and she said, “That’s it. No carnival.”
This was Friday night, and we’d been planning to go on Sunday. I thought she’d relent, because the carnival only came to town once a year.
Now, 38 years later, I still remember sitting at the kitchen table coloring and feeling an increasing sense of panic as that Sunday afternoon wore on. By dinner time, I realized there really was not going to be any reprieve. We were not going. I think of it as the first time in my life that I truly understood that your actions sometimes can have very grave consequences if you make a bad decision.
To a 6-year-old, missing the carnival was as serious a punishment as I could have imagined, short of having every toy I owned taken away. It brought home to me the fact that I’d had the choice to make a better decision – not once, but twice – and failed both times. I paid the price.
Taurasi is 27, and she had a decision to make, too. Everyone does when he or she consumes alcohol. If you’re going to drink more than even a marginal amount of alcohol outside your residence, you need to have a plan in place about how you’re going to get home that doesn’t involve you driving.
Failing to do so isn’t a “mistake.” A mistake is when you don’t know something is wrong until after you’ve done it. Drinking and then driving is a decision to do something you already know is wrong, with the thought being you hope you can get away with it.
Some of the readers who have been angry about what I wrote have suggested that what a player does away from the basketball court isn’t relevant to whether she should be an all-star. They think whatever punishment she might face from the legal system is enough.
Some also say that Taurasi is being unfairly spotlighted because lot of people drink and drive. But Taurasi is one of the most recognizable names and faces in women’s basketball, which isn’t exactly overrun with celebrities. When you agree to become one of the “faces” of any business, you represent not just yourself but everyone else in that business. If having that spotlight is considered “fair” when things are going well, it really can’t be called “unfair” when something negative happens.
The WNBA sells a trouble-free reputation, and it tries to interest advertisers with that image. That’s the world we live in right now in regard to professional women’s sports. I’ve had readers e-mail to say, “Lots of NBA players have done worse things,” but I don’t really see how that’s relevant. Frankly, I think the lack of personal-life responsibility and accountability that sometimes occurs in men’s sports without any drop-off in their popularity among spectators is not a route I’d want women’s basketball to take even if it did become more popular.
All that said, Taurasi has not done something that forever ruins her reputation. But she has to work to restore the parts that are damaged.
But to go back to the original point … do media columnists have the “right” to say these kinds of things? Is it our responsibility? Ultimately, that’s readers’ decision to make.