By Michael Miner
Good Sports, Bad Sports
America’s other big scandal is the Super Bowl, where Mike Holmgren told his team to take a dive. If Holmgren were president instead of Green Bay’s coach there’d be calls for a special prosecutor.
Holmgren did what he thought he had to do to win the game, but his situation ethics horrified Rick Telander. A former player, Telander places honor above victory, and he denounced Holmgren’s expediency. “It undermines the integrity of the sport itself,” he wrote in the Sun-Times. “So unbelievable was it that a coach in the biggest pro game of the year…in an environment saturated with gambling fears and gambling realities, actually would ask his players to quit trying that not one of the myriad TV commentators picked up on the fraud….Some things are just unbelievable.”
In the Tribune Bernie Lincicome railed against “the essential dishonesty, the basic fraud of the thing. Every yard in a football game is under dispute, every inch is to be won. Otherwise this might as well be soccer or lawn croquet.”
Lincicome compared Holmgren to Neville Chamberlain. He called Holmgren’s ploy “almost…Reinsdorfian in its depravity.”
Here’s what happened. With less than two minutes to play in the game the score was tied at 24 all, and Denver had driven downfield against a crumbling Packers defense to the Green Bay one-yard line. Holmgren calculated that the Broncos would almost certainly score; the more time left on the clock when Green Bay got the ball back, he reasoned, the better the Packers’ chances of retaliating. When on second down (which Holmgren thought was only first down) Bronco tailback Terrell Davis plunged toward the goal, the Green Bay line melted in front of him. Davis trotted into the end zone untouched. Green Bay then took the kickoff and charged deep into Denver territory before losing the ball on downs.
We’ve all seen football teams sit on the football to avoid running up the score. Should those players be ashamed of themselves because they’ve stopped trying? We’ve all seen quarterbacks spike the ball, surrendering a down to buy time. Will Ryan Leaf one day have difficulty telling his grandchildren that on the last play of the biggest game of his life, with his team desperately trying to rally, he intentionally threw an incomplete pass?
Telander and Lincicome are entitled to their principles. But what looks to them like fraud might be only their own myopia. Holmgren took the game to a deeper level, where even the experts didn’t understand what they were seeing. Because I did, I thought his gambit was kind of thrilling. I’m no expert, but I’d sailed these waters before, in the company of America’s foremost navigator of the treacherous ethical currents of sports: Gil Thorp.
What happened at the Super Bowl happened last fall in fine newspapers everywhere. The Gil Thorp comic strip appears daily in the Tribune sports section, but perhaps Lincicome doesn’t read it. A pity.
True, the situation the Milford Mudlarks found themselves in was even more extreme than the crisis facing the Packers. Rallying behind freshman quarterback sensation Jarvis White, Milford trailed Oakwood 15-14 with 50 seconds left to play. As the Mudlarks prepared to kick off, White called time and suggested a play to his coaches. Let’s go to the dialogue balloons:
“Sounds crazy to me, Matt, but it’s worth a try.”
“Let’s go for it, Mark!”
The ball sails downfield, and the Milford broadcast team goes wild.
“Warner’s kick is short, Paul! Something’s up!”
“All Oakwood has to do is fall on the ball and run out the clock!”
“Milford seems to be letting Oakwood score, Paul!”
“I’ve never seen anything like it, Marty!”
The Mudlarks swarm through the Oakwood line to block the conversion, then storm downfield for the touchdown and two-point conversion that win the game. Among the Milford faithful, there are no twinges of conscience, no regrets.
“Who thought of letting Oakwood score so they couldn’t run out the clock?” wonders Marty Moon, the play-by-play guy.
“Matt Shaw tells me it was Jarvis White’s idea, Marty,” says acting coach Mark Tabor.
“Milford has a new superstar,” says Moon.
No one who read this story line has any excuse for napping at the Super Bowl. Jerry Jenkins, who writes Gil Thorp, lives in Zion, Illinois. I called him and asked about the thrill he must have felt seeing Mike Holmgren tear a page from Gil Thorp’s book. “It went past me, which I hate to admit,” said Jenkins. His father opened his eyes after the game, E-mailing him to ask if the comic strip had inspired Holmgren. Jenkins has no idea. Jenkins took his inspiration from an Arkansas reader who’d sent details of a coup that allowed the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff to tie Western Montana and eventually win a play-off game in overtime, 60-53. So when Holmgren told his players to lie down, he was supported by a proud history of at least two games, one of them fictional.
“It’s really kind of surprising it hasn’t come up before,” said Jenkins, referring to the Holmgren gambit. “If a team’s ahead and you kick off to them [late in the game], they’re going to sit on the ball. And the only way to get the ball back is to let them score. Somehow you have to do something but give up.”
Jenkins has been writing Gil Thorp only since 1996, when Jack Berrill, the strip’s creator, died. Naysayers might argue that Jenkins is insufficiently grounded in the ethical traditions of his jut-jawed hero, who’s never cut a corner in his life. They might whisper that the Johnny-come-lately fails to understand that while life rewards the ersatz, sport is supposed to be genuine. I wondered if Jenkins worshiped at the altar of the New Morality.
It turns out that Jenkins used to play football at the old Forest View High School in Arlington Heights, and he started writing for the school paper while recovering from a broken arm. Today he is, among other things, a writer in residence at the Moody Bible Institute, whose magazine he used to edit. He collaborated with Billy Graham on his new autobiography, Just As I Am. (“The privilege of a lifetime,” said Jenkins.) He’s written more than a hundred books, many on sports figures, for adult and youthful readers. A mutual fan sent one of them to Berrill, and before long he and Jenkins were talking about a series of Gil Thorp novels. Those books never happened, but while he was dying, Berrill suggested that Jenkins take over the strip.
If you still question Jenkins as the ultimate moral authority when the big game ticks down to the final seconds, consider his credentials as an eschatologist. In 1995 a religious house, Tyndale, began publishing a series of novels Jenkins is writing about the Apocalypse. You may not have heard of them, but the first book, Left Behind, sold 500,000 copies; the second book, Tribulation Force, sold 300,000; and the latest, Nicolae, 250,000 just since last August. Those are not large numbers–those are staggering numbers. “No reader could miss the fact that the books have a conservative Christian agenda,” observed the Wall Street Journal, commenting last month on Jenkins’s books. “Between scenes of death and destruction, characters get lectures about the benefits of prayer and the evils of abortion and doctor-assisted suicide.”
The mainstream house Viking Penguin decided to cut itself in on the action and signed Jenkins to a six-figure contract to write a Christmas novel. And Left Behind, which, Jenkins told me, “starts out with millions of people disappearing out of their clothes, and everybody in the story who’s left behind wants to figure out what happened,” has already been sold to Hollywood.
The author of Gil Thorp pronounced Mike Holmgren “one of the great coaches.” Said Jenkins, “His total motive was to win.”
Telander wrote a second column last Sunday elaborating on his concerns. I read a passage to Jenkins: “A very large part of my problem with this play is that it forced proud athletes into half-stepping and duped other proud athletes into getting scammed. And it duped all the rest of us into thinking we were seeing something we were not.”
Jenkins replied, “I’m a big Telander fan. I love his stuff, and I can see the point, because it seems like you should always be playing 100 percent. But Holmgren was trying to win the game. He didn’t break any rules. I guess I’d have done it myself if I’d thought of it. Now, the other team–if they’d realized what was happening, they might have fallen down on the play.”
Which was something Telander pointed out–one team falling down to permit a score, the other falling down not to score. The game turning into a joke.
“The thing I think is a joke–” said Jenkins. “I’d like to see a rule changed. When Denver took over on downs and didn’t play it out–all they had to do was a kneel-down. Sometimes you see two or three kneel-downs. I’d like to see a rule that you advance the ball or you lose it.”
Trib’s Buddy System
Last November the Daily Herald blitzed Kane County, launching a new edition in the tri-city area of Batavia, Geneva, and Saint Charles. The Tribune, whose competition with the Daily Herald in western Cook and Du Page counties is as genteel as the tank battle of Kursk, pondered its response. The Tribune had never committed many resources to Kane County, covering it out of the Du Page County bureau and assigning just one full-time reporter to the task. The Tribune could mobilize and strike back.
Or it could form a strategic alliance. Already on the scene was the locally owned, locally focused (“What your community is all about”) Kane County Chronicle, and the Chronicle came to the Tribune with a proposition. The Chronicle had published Tuesday through Saturday until it got wind of the impending Daily Herald invasion; then it added a Monday paper in self-defense. But further moves seemed necessary. Perhaps, said the 15,000-circulation Chronicle to the 654,000-circulation Tribune, we should team up.
Thanks to a recent Tribune reorganization, there was someone in place to listen to the Chronicle and take it seriously. Since last August, Ginger Wade has been the Tribune’s general manager of the west-suburban market–assigned, she says, to “pretty well manage the newspaper out in this geography.” She liked what she heard. “We’d made the strategic decision that we wouldn’t be in the local news market in the foreseeable future, and we had a better chance of winning in conjunction with the local paper. It’s not in any way a global strategy. It’s wholly a strategy to look closely at each individual market and develop a sales strategy that wins for our readers and wins for us.”
The Tribune and Chronicle cooked up a couple of deals. “For only 99 cents a week,” as Wade announced in a letter to Tribune subscribers, they could now add six days of the Chronicle to the Sunday Tribune. “We realize you have choices when it comes to selecting your newspaper,” Wade explained. “That is why we are excited to tell you about a partnership between two great newspapers that we believe will make your choice a simple one….This unique seven-day offer brings you the best of both worlds.”
Or during the week a Kane County reader could buy the two great newspapers over the counter for a total of just 65 cents.
“We need to define where growth lies for the Tribune, and how to best meet the needs of our consumers,” Wade told me. “In some cases that may be designing a local product that reports local news–and we’re not saying we’re not going to get into that business. But for this point in time, for what we believe is right in Kane County, it made sense to give this a try.”
Can you get out of it at any time? I asked, thinking of the moment the Tribune decides to turn on the Chronicle and roll it over.
“Yep,” said Wade.
What does the Daily Herald make of the alliance?
“They’re probably not very happy.”
Probably not. But here’s what they said:
“I would say that competition makes strange bedfellows,” said Bob Strasser, the Herald’s tri-cities manager and advertising director. “I myself am surprised by it. I made some calls to other professionals in the business to ask them their comments, and it’s left all of us kind of scratching our heads. It’s certainly an interesting alliance, to say the least. I think that it’s really not a smart one. It’s sending a message to the reader that both publications have a certain degree of weakness. It’s as if Ford and Chevrolet formed a strategic alliance where they touted each other’s products but were competitors. Does that make sense?”
Or Ford and Yugo, I said.
“Better comparison. I think it makes the Chronicle look terribly weak, and it demeans the Tribune as well.”
The Herald responded by dropping the price of its daily paper to a quarter. The daily Sun-Times has been selling out west for as little as 20 cents. The Herald held the cost of its Sunday paper at $1.50, but the Tribune and then the Sun-Times slashed their Sunday price to 99 cents–not just in Kane County but throughout the Chicago area.
Strasser thinks he knows why. The last audit of Sunday Tribune circulation showed a drop of more than 23,000, to 1,023,736. “This is an attempt to keep their Sunday product over one million,” Strasser said.
No problem for an apocalyptist like Jenkins. One massive coronary later, Gil Thorp was acting principal. Then Jenkins brought in Dr. Martha Pearl to take over the school. “I think I said late 50s, gray hair, glasses,” said Jenkins, but when Ray Burns, the strip’s artist, drew her she looked 35.
“We might have to give her a family,” said Jenkins, guardian of Gil Thorp’s rectitude. “Or else let them have an affair. It seems to be the vogue.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jerry Jenkins photo -Tribune Media Services Inc, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.