Nothing Fake About This Identity Crisis
A likely franchise player in USC’s football program faced one of his first tough tests of the season this week. Quarterback Mark Sanchez gets about a C-minus.
No, he wasn’t facing a huge defensive end, with shoulders like Mt. Baldy and hair growing out of his nose, trying to sack him. He was facing an old, wrinkled sportswriter asking questions.
The subject was Sanchez’s arrest in April on suspicion of sexual assault against a female USC student; the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office did not file charges, citing insufficient evidence.
The line of questioning was how, now that he was back out in public, he might deal with the aftermath and fallout, especially from opposing teams’ fans. The incident had included his use of a fake ID to get into an off-campus bar. Coach Pete Carroll had indicated that using the fake ID warranted discipline and that discipline would be handled “internally.” But that wasn’t expected to stop all the boo birds. Or the questions.
This wasn’t one of those sneak-attack interviews. The access and subject matter had been discussed for weeks with school officials.
Sanchez, three months from his 20th birthday, has yet to play a down for the Trojans. As a freshman last fall he redshirted, practicing with the team but saving a year of eligibility by not playing in games. Now, he is at least No. 2, behind John David Booty.
When Booty was hurt in the spring, Sanchez got most of the snaps and attention. The buzz was that poor Booty, after waiting through Matt Leinart’s Heisman Trophy year and then his one-more-season curtain call, was now at risk of losing the job to this precocious 6-foot-4 kid from Mission Viejo.
Now, as the Trojans prepare for their Sept. 2 opener against Arkansas, Booty and Sanchez seem to be getting equal snaps, although Booty runs the first unit.
To Sanchez’s credit -- helping him rate a C-minus rather than an F -- he had just finished the practice session on a downer, by throwing an interception. That, plus the ongoing possibility of further legal issues in these situations, made the subject matter touchy.
But not impossible.
At first, Sanchez denied the existence of “anything hanging over his head,” and quickly added, “I am a good person, and the people who know me know that.”
He said that there had not been any formal sit-down session, with his parents or the coaching staff, to formulate a strategy on how to handle questions about the off-season incident.
“I’ve talked in general to some people,” he said, acknowledging that the subject may come up as the team moves from one game to another.
But when the questions got specific, Sanchez fumbled a lot.
He was asked whether he had been back to the bar, the infamous 901 Club (a.k.a. the 9-0) that sits just off USC’s Fraternity Row, where he had been the night of the incident, April 26.
His answer: “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
He was asked about the fake ID he used to get in, because the bar has a stated policy that allows in nobody under 21. He was asked whether Jordan Traver Uttal, the name on the Arizona ID he used, is a real person.
His answer: “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
Now we had a problem. Sanchez had taken the path most common and comfortable to athletes on the hot seat. He had avoided telling the truth.
Old Wrinkled knew this because he had been the reporter assigned to the USC campus the night news hit that Sanchez had been led away in handcuffs from the Cardinal Gardens apartment complex near campus. The reporter had made his way to the 901 Club, after several students had told him that’s where Sanchez had been, and had watched as the bar tapes of the night before were played, over and over. Sanchez had entered at 11:21 p.m., slid his Jordan Traver Uttal under the camera that records such things, hung out with several other USC players and departed at 12:59 a.m.
Usually, reporters asking questions like this are basing them on reports, documents or secondhand information. Not this time.
The interview ended shortly, and not exactly on a let’s-have-dinner-soon basis.
This, of course, is not life-threatening, career-threatening or even team-threatening. USC will be good, and so will Sanchez.
But it hints at how little athletes and college programs think they owe the public in the way of transparency, if they think about it at all. To them, fans are there to buy tickets, contribute to big TV ratings, take the PR pablum passed out before and after games and shut up.
It was interesting that across town, on the same day, UCLA kicker Justin Medlock was taking a stab at his first public statement about a traffic accident he had a week after his team’s last game last season. A passenger in the truck Medlock was driving, Hannah Jun of the UCLA women’s golf team, suffered a fractured vertebra in her neck and was sidelined much of last season, although she is back and playing now.
Medlock, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor drunk driving, said, “I’m really sorry about the whole thing.” That, of course, was the usual public-figure non-apology apology. He didn’t say he was sorry he did it, just that he was sorry it happened. Later, he said he was sorry for “the passenger” and what she had to go through “with the media and everything.” He was whisked away, before he could be asked to explain or elaborate, by ever-vigilant public relations people, whose interests now seem to stress athlete-protecting over access-providing.
On these issues, fans mostly don’t care. Just win, baby.
But there are at least two important people who ought to be concerned, because there are important elements of education involved here. One is President Steven Sample, who sits in the biggest office at USC, and the other is acting Chancellor Norman Abrams, who does the same at UCLA.
Paying attention, guys?
Bill Dwyre can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.