LOS ANGELES — Maybe Lincoln Riley forgets that he is now coaching in the No. 2 media market in North America, rather than sleepy Norman, Oklahoma.
Maybe he was triggered by a single sentence.
Or maybe he’s just resorting to the traditional college football coach’s playbook: Assert control, and steer the coverage of your team into friendly territory, by bullying the new guy on the beat and intimidating the others.
Sorry, Lincoln. You might have just stepped in it.
When Riley “suspended” beat writer Luca Evans for two weeks, ostensibly because of a laundry list of infractions against the program’s media policies, he forgot one thing. Two, actually.
First: You are not entitled to “suspend” someone who does not in fact work for you. Evans is paid by the Southern California News Group, and his job is to report on USC athletics without fear or favor.
Second: It is the news organization that decides who covers the beat, not the news source. That’s sort of inherent in journalism, and while not explicitly stated in the First Amendment it’s something of a deal-breaker. The reporter’s job is to be an independent source of information for those who care, be it USC football, the White House or the Temecula school board. Good news or bad, it’s the reporter’s job to inform the public and enable them to make up their own minds – especially since so much of what we do involves finding and reporting information that those in charge would rather hide from the public.
Asked about what led to his decision following Tuesday’s practice, Riley cited “more than one” violation of the program’s media policies. And to be honest, some – most – of those alleged infractions seem like nothing more than a good reporter doing his job to cultivate sources on a new beat.
“I don’t feel like we have too many rules, too many policies,” Riley said. “But the ones that we do have, we take them seriously, because my first job – even though it is part of my job – is not to the media, it’s not to the fans, it’s not to anybody else. It’s to protecting our players. And that is first and foremost, that will always be priority number one.”
Protection from what, he didn’t say. Nor would he specify which policies he was referring to when I followed up. “Like I said, there were multiple that were broken, but I’m not going to get into specifics today,” he said.
From all appearances, the tipping point was last Thursday’s feature on freshman running back Quinten Joyner, and an anecdote illustrating the young player’s shyness and nervousness before he was to talk to the media following practice. The allegation was that Evans overheard a conversation, which could be considered a breach, but that’s an issue for the sports editor to handle, not the coach.
But the suspicion here is that Riley’s ire isn’t so much that Evans used what he heard, but that it included the question from one player to the other before that press conference: “Did they tell you what to say?” Knowing what we know about the way college football coaches operate, with thumb squarely planted on the scale as often as possible, seeing that in print might have been what enraged Riley.
And by the way, if Riley thinks I deserve a “suspension” after this, he shouldn’t waste his breath. I’m “suspending” USC football from this column for a while.
Other missteps cited by USC director of football communications Katie Ryan constitute penny-ante stuff, things like asking a question after the “last question” notification. Or using USC president Carol Folt’s first name during a press conference. (What’s the preference, Madame President?) Or greeting players away from the program-approved scrums following practice. Or sending emails to members of the athletic department for the purpose of introducing himself.
Those aren’t things from which players, or coaches, or administrators, need to be protected. It’s simply diligence and enthusiasm from a young man about to tackle a major beat for the first time and wanting to do it well. Evidently, these media policies constitute the “Don’t You Dare Be An Effective Beat Writer” code, in which you go with the pack and regurgitate the same stuff everybody else gets.
(Incidentally, Luca sent me an email introducing himself when he first joined the staff. I was delighted.)
Attempting to dictate coverage in such a ham-handed manner rarely happens in this diverse market. The last example I can recall involved – who else? – the Raiders in 1993, toward the end of their stay in Los Angeles, when Al Davis tried to have Daily News writer Eric Noland removed from the beat during training camp because of negative coverage. Among the highlights: Davis sycophant Steve Ortmayer telling Rick Vacek, then the Daily News sports editor: “I’m not telling you who can cover the team. I’m telling you who can’t.”
No, he couldn’t. The NFL stepped in and threatened a huge fine, and other newspapers and broadcast organizations threatened a boycott of Raiders coverage. To be fair, 30 years ago there were far more beat writers then (from 10 individual papers) covering the Raiders regularly than cover USC now. And forget any thoughts of the NCAA or the Pac-12 intervening in this situation. You’d have better luck with Fox or ESPN, so rudderless is college football.
But consider this: Not only does Luca Evans have the unconditional support of SCNG and the 11 newspapers in this group, but he also has the support of his previous professional stop: The Los Angeles Times.
Think hard, Trojans.
If you’re reading this publication, you are benefitting from independent reporting, again without fear or favor. And so we go back to the very beginning: The news source does not have the right to dictate who does – or doesn’t – cover the beat.