Riverside's daily newspaper, the Press-Enterprise, had credentialed reporters at the Riverside Poly-Arlington and Norco-Perris high school football games last week. Ordinarily, this would not be considered news, but these are warped times, when rights once taken for granted now get taken to the mat with distressing frequency.
Until last Wednesday, one day before the local prep football season opened, the Press-Enterprise had no credentials to cover football or any other high school sport. This was no oversight on the part of the CIF-Southern Section, the body that governs high school athletics in this area. No, this was Southern Section Commissioner Stan Thomas' personal stab at the censorship game, which has become the national pastime of the 1990s.
Thomas doesn't like some of the things the Press-Enterprise chooses to write about--specifically, a series on racism in high school sports that ran this past spring--and being commissioner, Thomas figured he was fully empowered to strike back. Thomas' counterattack was to wipe the Press-Enterprise off the Southern Section's mailing list and to deny its sports staff the credentials required to cover Southern Section events.
In other words, cover it Thomas' way--or don't cover it at all.
Far from the Robert Mapplethorpe and 2 Live Crew battlefields, the Press-Enterprise soon found itself in the same kind of fight. If the powers that be aren't telling you what you can't see or what you can't hear, they're telling you what you can't write.
To its credit, the Press-Enterprise decided to fight the power. It got the word to other newspapers, enemies by day--it's a scoop or be scooped world--but the best of allies when wagons need circling. The other newspapers threatened a boycott of Southern Section games.
The Press-Enterprise also got the word to local politicians, most notably a Riverside assemblyman named Steve Clute. Clute, a former UC Riverside athlete, led the full-court press that led Thomas to reconsider his stance.
Last Wednesday, the Press-Enterprise received its credentials. Thomas dispatched an assistant, Scott Cathcart, to personally deliver the credentials at a luncheon summit in Corona with the newspaper's prep editor.
"It has been resolved," Cathcart reported Tuesday. And, with care, he added, "It does not set a precedent. We have enjoyed our good relationship with the Southern California media and we want it to continue."
If so, Thomas might want to book a refresher course in Journalism 101. According to John Garrett, sports editor at the Press-Enterprise, Thomas sent a letter addressed to the newspaper's managing editor along with those credentials. Garrett quotes from the letter:
"Perhaps it is time for you to internally review what you consider to be appropriate journalistic style and re-evaluate the Riverside Press-Enterprise's policy in the area of prep sports coverage. The Southern Section feels schools are adequately represented by scores, statistics, etc."
Says Garrett: "That's basically been the problem. The CIF just wants us to write about nice kids playing ballgames.
"But if kids are using steroids, we want to look at that. If coaches are recruiting illegally, we want to look at that. If players are using racial slurs against other players, we want to look at that. We have a major difference of opinion about that with Stan."
The series of articles that ignited the Thomas/Press-Enterprise feud revolved around a fight that broke out last year between white football players at Hemet High and black players at Perris. The fight forced the cancellation of the remainder of the game and, allegedly, was prompted by racial slurs made by several Hemet players.
"We started to look at the situation and how the CIF was handling it," Garrett says. "There were two widely varying incident reports filed by the schools after the game. One mentioned the racial slurs in great detail, the other said nothing about it. The CIF's response was, 'We read the reports and we're satisfied.' "
Garrett called it a non-response. His staff did more stories on the subject, including a survey of 12 Riverside area coaches. "Three coaches said (racism) was quite a concern in high school games and three or four others said they were aware of racial slurs during games," Garrett says. "We did another substantial story in June about another incident between Palmdale and Saugus.
"The (Southern Section) executive committee had never heard of these incidents. The whole executive committee said, 'We've always stood for sportsmanship,' but I never saw anybody say, 'Hey, this is unacceptable.'
"The CIF kept saying it was going to address this problem, but it was always in a vague sense. Nobody was willing to say, 'Hey, you don't call a guy a nigger.' . . . They seem to be oblivious to this problem."
The Press-Enterprise followed with a column highly critical of Thomas' handling of the matter, which proved to be the final straw. Because the Southern Section hadn't released the incident reports to the Press-Enterprise--the newspaper invoked the Public Records Act to get the information from the schools--Cathcart says the Press-Enterprise "tried to strong-arm us into divulging information and they were retaliating by writing about Stan.
"Stan's feeling was: The only way to make a statement to the Press-Enterprise was to end relations with the Press-Enterprise, to not provide them with press credentials."
Of course, this was as wrong as wrong can be. Thomas couldn't have chosen a worse way to make a statement. Sportswriters criticize. Sports commissioners happen to be targets. You accept the job, you accept the flak. If professional franchises conducted business in the same fashion, there'd be empty press boxes today in Atlanta, New York and Anaheim.
"One sports editor from a smaller paper called me and said, 'Al Davis wouldn't do that,' " Garrett says. "That pretty much summed it up. You don't fight your battles with credentials."
Thomas learned, almost the hard way.
"There was a lot of pressure from within the CIF," Cathcart says. "Stan took a step back, looked at it again and made a different decision."
Good decision, and just in the nick of time. Boycott one newspaper and you run the risk of being boycotted by them all.
Freedom of speech, even in these dark ages, is something newspapers still take seriously.