One of journalism’s most coveted perks is the license to go before the public and declare, “This stinks.” You don’t want to overdo it—readers tune out columnists who think everything stinks. And you may hesitate to do it at all. In a small town, for instance, where everybody knows everybody else, someone of the opinion this doesn’t stink might wait for you after church and punch you in the nose. But it’s nice to be the gunslinger your editors trust to pull the trigger.
One measure of the troubles at Penn State is that they reduced stink to a euphemism. Allegations that children had been sexually abused and the predator protected for a decade laid open a sinkhole of moral disgrace.
But I’m not writing to dwell on Penn State.
Three weeks ago, when the Nittany Lions played their first football game in 46 years without Joe Paterno as head coach, the visiting University of Nebraska found itself in the strange supporting role of the virtuous visitor. Nebraska carried out its assignment to perfection. Besides winning a game that karma insisted Penn State lose, Nebraska provided an assistant coach, Ron Brown, pious and fervent enough to lead both teams in prayer before the opening kickoff, and a head coach, Bo Pelini, who after the game contributed the admirable opinion that against such a sordid backdrop the game shouldn’t have been played.
It was, I suppose, a proud moment for the Husker faithful. (My wife’s from there, and I’m a fan myself.) But as I watched the game on national TV, I wondered if the announcers would mention that Nebraska had issues of its own. (They didn’t.) An atmosphere of expediency and entitlement envelops Division One NCAA sports pretty much everywhere, and back in Lincoln, Nebraska, another sport had just produced an interesting case in point.
Volleyball is Nebraska’s other glamorous autumn sport. The team plays before standing room only crowds and every few years wins a national championship. This year’s team was ranked first in the country the Sunday morning of October 30, when starting setter Lauren Cook, driving her parents’ SUV to a session with the team’s trainer, sideswiped a motorcycle stopped at the side of the road. Cook drove off, leaving behind one cyclist with scrapes and bruises and another with a fractured leg.
A few blocks away, Cook stopped. Presumably she got a grip on herself, but it’s also true one tire was shredded. She called her mother on her cell phone, then she called 911, and in short order she was the newest entry in Lincoln’s police blotter, charged with leaving the scene of an accident. Complicating her predicament was a history of six previous tickets for speeding. Cook was driving on a suspended license.
Cook was not only a star (her freshman year, at UCLA, she’d been named national freshman of the year), she was the daughter of Nebraska’s head coach. It was a big story, and at his Monday news conference, without further adieu or a word of concern for the two persons her daughter had driven into, John Cook addressed it.
“This has happened with athletes here before and I’m sure it will happen again,” the coach said. “We’ve got to let the legal process work itself through. . . . We have procedures in place here at the athletic department with our program, how we deal with these things, and that’s our business. . . . We’ve already had discussions about it, and we move forward.”
The next day a Lincoln Journal Star columnist, Cindy Lange-Kubick, struck the same positive note on her blog: “When bad things happen, when mistakes are made, there is always only one thing to be done: Move forward. How do you hold someone accountable and show some mercy at the same time?”
A way was found. John Cook’s first call, when he found out about the pickle his daughter was in, was to athletic director Tom Osborne, a wise old hand at handling matters of this sort. A godlike figure on campus, back in the 90s Osborne coached three undefeated Nebraska football teams in four years. One of the top Cornhuskers of that era was running back Lawrence Phillips. Osborne suspended him early in the 1995 season after he was arrested for pummeling a former girlfriend, but reinstated him in time for Phillips to star in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl that decided the national championship.
Ever since, Phillips has been in and out of trouble but mostly in, and two years ago in California he was sentenced to 31 years in prison for attacking his girlfriend and driving his car into a group of teenagers he was angry at over a touch football game. Osborne’s handling of Phillips is still debated in Nebraska. Was it a failed but worthy attempt to redeem a troubled youth, or the cynical exploitation of a talented misfit who didn’t belong within a country mile of a university? Or was it both—a good man’s instincts aligned with his interests?
Osborne attended Cook’s arraignment, and at the news conference afterward, aside from the apology Lauren Cook read, her attorney and Osborne did all the talking. (Her attorney has represented several Husker athletes. “We’re happy no charges were filed,” he said two years ago, when his client was a football starter in trouble after a fight with his girlfriend, “and we’re ready to move forward.”)
They announced that Cook had been accepted into a pretrial diversion program involving probation and community service, followed by the expungement of the felony charge of leaving the scene from her record. (Her history of speeding and suspended license somehow went by the legal wayside.)
The dailies in Lincoln and Omaha published articles pointing out that pretrial diversion was a virtually unheard of remedy for a defendant in Cook’s legal position. But punditry apparently began and ended with Lange-Kubick’s gentle reflections. No one drew the conclusion that in a town like Chicago would be considered perfunctory: something stinks.
“Am I the only one,” wrote the commenter “Ricky From River City” on the Journal Star website, “who sees parallels between JoePa and Penn State and T O and Nebraska? Both schools have (or had in the case of PSU), icons who had years at the helms of big athletic departments. Nobody can tell either JoePa or T O what they can or cannot do. (and JoePa and T O are close friends). Presidents of the University’s cater to their athletic departments. JoePa covers up for crimes committed at PSU and T O enables behavior of a coddled athlete at UNL (although I realize the offense at PSU was much more horrific). Somebody at the UNL should put their foot down before everything is out of control in Lincoln like in Happy Valley.”
Ricky wasn’t the only one, but his company was all online. In the classroom, the university’s journalism students marveled at the ethical ironies, but the morning papers didn’t touch them.
Covering Husker athletics is as good as it gets in Nebraska, and reporters think twice about getting on the wrong side of Osborne and his coaches. This October, after a 48-17 drubbing from Wisconsin, an Omaha columnist questioned the consistency of the Huskers’ inconsistent quarterback, Taylor Martinez (Lauren Cook’s boyfriend, by the way). The next time coach Bo Pelini held a news conference he treated the columnist with angry contempt: “Let’s get somebody that asks a question that’s worth answering,” Pelini snapped at him. The reporter published a (half-hearted) apology and later begged off answering my questions.
The 2006 volleyball team won the national championship, but despite the return of three All-Americas, including Nebraska’s greatest player ever, four-time All-America Sarah Pavan, the 2007 team lost in the regionals. Two months later, Pavan said in an interview with a campus magazine that she felt misunderstood by her teammates and alienated from most of them. John Cook would have none of that. He told Pavan—who intended to play volleyball professionally —that unless she apologized to the team she could no longer practice with it. And he told the student newspaper, the Daily Nebraskan, to drop the story. If they didn’t, he said, “I’m going to call over to the journalism college and get this straightened out.”
Lauren Cook missed one weekend of play while her legal fate was up in the air and Nebraska won both its matches without her. But as soon as she entered pretrial diversion (as opposed to when she completed it), she was good to go, and she was back in action for the big match at highly ranked Purdue. Purdue handed the Huskers their worst beating in more than ten years. Did any reporter have the nerve to either ask John Cook or wonder on his own authority whether Lauren Cook’s greased return to action had any impact on team unity? Apparently not.
Not that it’s easy to ask Nebraska coaches anything. Every varsity sport is assigned its own information director, a gatekeeper who must be dealt with before a coach can even be approached. In Division One, this arrangement is standard operating procedure. It doesn’t do much for the free flow of information, but as the Sun-Times‘s Rick Telander observes, that isn’t the point. The point is “damage control.”
When the topic is rot in sports, Telander is my go-to guy. I asked him about NCAA athletics. “Everything about it is shameful and everybody knows that, so it’s best just to write about the games,” he said. “Especially in small places like Lincoln, Norman, Iowa City, they have their own little fiefdoms. More and more, everybody’s a cover-up artist.
“I’m sick of coach worship,” he said. “Nothing will change it.”
Correction: This story has been amended to correctly reflect the spelling of Cindy Lange-Kubick.