Op Ed
May 12, 2006

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The referee's call

When I was a kid, I played on the seventh- and eighth-grade basketball team, and I knew better than to gripe about the referee’s call.

At home, I was a real whiner but not on the court. There was only one thing to do when the whistle blew and the referee pointed at you: Say nothing, and get on with the game. To do otherwise was poor sportsmanship, and might even invite another penalty.

As an adult, I was the referee, in a sense. I went to many long, boring meetings, and then I wrote about them in the newspaper. I selected the most interesting thing and I wrote about it. If two or more people were screaming at each other in the meeting, I took that as a sign that it was probably the most interesting thing going on. Sometimes, I was a silent witness, and other times I was more of a referee, asking questions afterward, sorting out the issues.

As a reporter, I made those calls and later on, as an editor, I wrote the headlines and made sure that the reporters tried to cover both sides.

Americans have become whinier since I first started working at a newspaper in 1976. Now, there are all sorts of whining, griping and pleading to change the referee’s call.

Does good sportsmanship even exist now? We are so used to seeing gloating, fighting and challenges of the referee’s decisions on the playing field that it has spilled over into our everyday life.

I sat through another gripe session on May 3 as two representatives of the Kansas State Board of Education participated in a media panel. The state board majority, which is conservative, decided to exclude the moderates from panel participation. Board member Sue Gamble had to sit in the audience and raise her hand to ask a question!

As usual, what they did spoke louder than what they said.

In my view as a referee, there was a split between the two factions of the board, and that split is the problem. When both sides were both quoted in the media, they both tried to pull in third parties to their side, resulting at times in both sides being angry with the media.

A very old tactic of sports figures and politicians is to challenge the referee’s call or to attack the media. It draws attention away from their own failures. A journalist will state, for example, that the home team lost or the war is not going well for America. The coach will respond by saying the referee’s call was bad when, if the team is superior, it would have won regardless of all the calls. The politician will respond that the journalist is biased or unpatriotic. Both the coach and the politician have drawn attention away from their own poor performance.

In the past coverage of the evolution dispute in Kansas, the game is over. The stories have been written. The referee’s calls have been made. Maybe once in a while they were wrong, but that’s the way it looked at the time to the referees.

To the Kansas State Board of Education, I say: You can’t go back again. You can’t go back to a time before Charles Darwin. You can’t go back to a time before your decision to change the science standards. You can’t go back to a time when you were not news. You can’t go back and change scientific advancements. You can just stand there while the whistle blows and then move on.

Mary Rupert is a past president and board member of the Kansas City Press Club, the organization that sponsored May 3 event with Johnson County Community College.

EDITOR’S NOTE: eKC columnist and blogger Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell posted the following concerning the May 3 forum; also, links to bloggers commenting on the same meeting follow Rupert’s reply.

“If the media was going to hold a panel to discuss coverage of this topic, then the media should have included both sides. If one side didn't want to play with the other, it was then their decision to take their marbles and go home. I am also a board member of the press club and I did not support the club's decision to hold what amounted to a marketing campaign by the board."

(Rupert's reply)

From what I heard, both sides on the board were invited, and the conservative majority excluded the moderates from appearing on the panel.

Dave Helling (with The Kansas City Star), one of the media members on the panel, told the others that he didn't feel that having board conservatives on the panel and not the board moderates would make any difference in his coverage. He said he is used to going to political debates, with many candidates, where the incumbent chooses not to attend. He added he would just call them later to get the other side for his story.

So there was somewhat of a split in the Press Club over whether to do this panel.

Other blogs mentioning the Press Club's forum include http://redstaterabble.blogspot.com, http://theforcethat.blogspot.com and http://kansasrealpolitik.blogspot.com.


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