On June 11, Nashville’s largest newspaper led its sports section with a college football story by Vanderbilt beat writer Mike Organ, which read in part, “The Tennessean has learned that less than 2,000 season tickets have been ordered with the first game only 80 days away.”
The following day, the front page of the Tennessean’s sports section featured the headline: “Correction: Vanderbilt Says It Has Sold 5,244 Season Tickets So Far.”
Organ is an excellent reporter who apparently had been misled by an unnamed source. But as Titans mini-camps begin and football talk is in the summer air, a mistake of the Tennessean’s magnitude begs the following questions: Are Vanderbilt athleticsparticularly footballtreated too harshly by the Nashville media? Are our local pro sports teams treated with kid gloves?
“My reaction (to the first Tennessean piece) was the same one you have whenever you see a wildly inaccurate and untrue story in the paper,” says Vanderbilt Chancellor for Public Affairs Mike Schoenfeld, who does not believe the Tennessean has any anti-Vanderbilt bias. “You pick up the phone and call the newspaper, and they immediately acknowledged their error and made their regrets.”
The Scene invited one of the Tennessean’s top sports columnists to comment on the bias question. After checking with his management, he declined.
“That’s just a huge mistake on the part of the Tennessean,” WWTN-FM’s Willy Daunic said of the paper’s Vanderbilt story. “If that was a Titans story, would they have run it? If someone in a newspaper column or a sports talk show wants to bash Vanderbilt, you can rest assured that nobody will question it. It’s accepted practice. If you wanted to do that with the Titans you would be much more careful. There’s more of a fear factor.”
That fear factor has to do with the loss of access to the franchise. Don’t think the Titans organization doesn’t have a long memory when strong (negative) opinions are voiced or inaccuracies are printed.
The same kid-gloves approach could be suggested about local media’s treatment of the Nashville Predators. The team has failed to reach the playoffs in its first five seasons and didn’t win any of its last 15 games last year, after rising star David Legwand had a season-ending injury. On a positive note, the hockey club and its more diehard fans made Nashville the talk of the NHL at the league’s Entry Draft last weekend, and the organization has stuck to its philosophy of patience and slow growth through draft picks instead of pricey free agents.
But if popular owner Craig Leipold is so reluctant to invest in free-agent hockey players in Nashville to make the Predators more successful, why is he said to be simultaneously interested in buying an NBA team in Milwaukee? And why, in turn, hasn’t he been taken to task for this? In other words, if his hockey team ain’t working, why doesn’t he pay to fix it? And why hasn’t anyone in the local media made a stink about it?
“I don’t think the Predators are looked at the same as Vanderbilt,” NewsChannel 5 sports director Hope Hines says. “Hey, it’s pro hockey. We treat them on a totally different basis, even when they’re on a losing streak. We’re happy to have them here.”
Regarding Leipold’s possible interest in the Milwaukee Bucks, Predators VP of Communications Gerry Helper says: “That was a case where maybe we got burned by being too honest. Craig was asked about the Bucks and he said if there’s a role for him to help keep the team in Milwaukee, he might play it. He was talking to some people who might play a financial role in that. It’s not nearly as significant an issue as has been portrayed in Nashville.”
Of course, this is the point where certain basic assumptions about the difference between pro teams and collegiate teams have to be articulated, in spite of their obviousness. To wit: Pro teams and athletes are paid to win. Scholarship athletes are paid to bring their excellence to the playing field, but first and foremost to graduate.
Maybe when it comes to how the local media treats Vanderbilt, these basic assumptions have been forgotten. Or worse, get turned around completely.
Indeed, on one level, the recrimination Vandy football gets from local media annually is deserved. Vanderbilt’s football program has been a horror show for decades. The Commodores’ last winning football season was 1982, when they beat Tennessee and went to a bowl game. Prior to Bobby Johnson, their recent coaches followed a recurring career pattern of failure-to-win leading to frustration-at-not-winning leading finally to flight. It’s yet to be seen whether Johnson will follow a similar pattern.
But if the purpose of college education is to graduate, Vandy’s football program wins the Super Bowla university priority over athletic achievement (and the media dollars that follow) that is consistently downplayed. Rival Southeastern Conference programs like Arkansas and Tennessee graduated less than 20 percent of their football players last season, a truly horrific figure. Vanderbilt graduated 90 percent, and two years ago led the NCAA in football graduation rates. But it’s Vandy, a charter member of the SEC, whose inclusion in the conference is regularly questioned.
When was the last time you read a local story about the Predators’ survivability as an NHL franchise? The Preds were last in the league in attendance this year. As well, they had the one of the lowest payrolls in the league, and still lost money. With everything you heard about the Predators Playoff Pledge, how much was made of the fact that they failed to make the playoffs? Or how about this question: Will 2003-2004 be a turnaround season for the franchise?
It could be. The Preds had some bad luck with injuries last season while they were hot. But it could also be another playoffless season...again. And if the labor agreement with the players’ union doesn’t change, they could be in even more of a world of financial hurt.
Will 2003 be a turnaround season for Vandy football? Chances are slim to none. The Commodores remain smaller and slower than their SEC rivals, so Vanderbilt will likely stumble to another three- or four-win campaign at best because they play on a different field than their conference rivalsalthough you can be sure they’ll be criticized by the local press for their ineptitude as if the playing field were a level one. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt is the only private SEC university, and far and away the smallest: With just under 6,000 students, Vanderbilt is less than half the size of its next smallest SEC rival. (Ole Miss has 14,900 students.)
Vanderbilt, needless to say, has its bright lights on the sports front. The Commodores’ women’s basketball program is among the best in the country and has reached the NCAA tournament 16 consecutive seasons. Tennis and baseball had strong 2003 seasons, and received fair treatment in the local press.
“They’re gonna have to go the extra mile at Vandy to put the fannies in those seats,” City Paper sports editor Craig Ladd says. “Everyone in the media would love to see a winner, and I think if they did that it would have to take space from the Preds and the Titans.”
All of which goes to say that winning, even just five or six victories in football, would cure many ills at Vanderbilt. Most likely, it would become a national story. And it might even make local media as boosterish toward them as they are toward the Predators and Titans.