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Something is still wrong with Urban

3/27/2010 - Florida Gators

University of Florida head football coach Urban Meyer has proved himself to be a bully and a hypocrite. His threats against an Orlando Sentinel reporter, Jeremy Fowler, on Wednesday confirm the coach's emotional instability, a sign that he may have been allowed to return way too early from his medical leave of absence.

According to audiotapes and eyewitness accounts of the event, Meyer confronted Fowler in the presence of about 20 other reporters, pointed his finger and threatened to ban Fowler -- along with other Sentinel reporters -- from access to practices and Gators players.

Fowler's sin, according to Meyer, involved a quote from Florida wide receiver Deonte Thompson that the reporter published. In an interview, Thompson contrasted the playing style of former Gators quarterback Tim Tebow with that of his successor, John Brantley.

"You never know with Tim," Fowler quoted Thompson on his blog. "You'll think he's running, but then he'll just come up and pass it to you. You just have to be ready at all times. With Brantley, everything's with rhythm, time. Like, you know what I mean, a real quarterback."

There's nothing wrong with this quote, nothing for which the student or the reporter should have to apologize. It is, in fact, a canny analysis, from someone whose hands should know, of the difference between an improvisational quarterback and a more conventional one -- say, Doug Flutie versus John Unitas.

Then, two things happened: A truncated version of the quote appeared on various sports blogs, and it spread quickly. Ripped out of context, it sounded as if Thompson were using "real quarterback" against Tebow, the way my wife might contrast me with Sean Connery, who she thinks is a "real man."

A friend and admirer of Tebow, Thompson was mortified when he came under real criticism from some real Gators fans and real devout Tim worshippers who did not get his intended meaning.

Enter Meyer at a Gators practice with this in-your-face slam to the reporter: "You'll be out of practice -- you understand that? -- if you do that again. I told you [the media] five years ago: Don't mess with our players. Don't do it. You did it. You do it one more time and the Orlando Sentinel's not welcome here ever again. Is that clear? It's yes or no."

On the Sentinel's Web site, the reporter described his response: "Urban, come on. Don't make any threats. That's fine. I'll play by rules. But all I was doing is quoting the guy. I don't think I was the only one."

That fired up the coach: "You're a bad guy, man. You're a bad guy. If that was my son, we'd be going at it right now."

Going at it right now?

I've never met Fowler, but in my fantasy he is built like pro wrestler John Cena. He moves into the coach's space, stares him in the eye and says, "You want some, Coach? Then come get some."

Instead, the reporter exercised a level of professional restraint, showing the coach who the bigger man is.

Consider the hypocrisy. Think about the past four years of media reports about Florida football, about how Meyer exalted Tebow and invited a level of coverage of his golden boy that approached canonization. How can Meyer castigate the news media for a player's hurt feelings when he has enjoyed countless hours of coverage of the virtues and triumphs of his substitute son?

When coverage of his team swung out of control, Meyer snapped, proving, as if we needed proof, that he is, like so many other coaches, a control freak. He -- and sports programs everywhere -- continue to limit access to players, facilities, even games. Schools and coaches want control of the image. They want control of the message. And, most of all, they want control of the revenues. It would all be paradise … if it weren't for those pesky reporters.

Guess what? Some of those pesky reporters who have covered the Gators throughout the years are alumni of the University of Florida journalism program. (Fowler, in fact, is a Florida alum.) I know those people, so I know they've learned the values of responsible journalism. Some years, the record of the J-school there has been better than the record of the football team.

The dean of the journalism school should ask the president of the university to call Meyer on the carpet and make him apologize to Fowler in front of the other reporters. Meyer, if he had the guts, would then march over to the J-school and make this promise:

"Journalism students and teachers: I believe in good journalism and the First Amendment. I and my team have benefited from it. I believe that graduates of the journalism school are just as important as graduates of the football program. We're going to work with the players on their media skills so they can become successful professionals. The coverage you provide them, good or bad, will make them stronger. When we think you got it wrong, we'll tell you. We may even shout. But we'll never threaten or bully you. Our players are not children. They are men. We want them to learn how to be responsible for their words and actions, even as we hold journalists responsible for theirs."

It would be a good speech. But you won't hear it from Urban Meyer. He doesn't have the stomach for it.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Florida, and works closely with sports writers. He is the author of "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer."