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Lincoln Riley, USC decline their own penalty
They back off their ban of a reporter, but is it educational to tell your players what to say?
Apparently bored by USC’s 3-0 start against Lichenstein, Luxembourg and Andorra, USC coach Lincoln Riley decided to bigfoot a young reporter this week.
He suspended Luca Evans, of the Southern California News Group, for two weeks because Evans conducted interviews and wrote a story that did not fit the template sent down by USC’s Ministry of Information.
So Evans was facing the prospect of avoiding the sound of Trojan student-athletes discussing “culture” or being “all in.”
Sounded pretty nice, but then the Trojans got a grip. Riley and Evans talked on Wednesday night, and Evans rejoined the dissident media at USC on Thursday. However, he and the others are still reporting in a straitjacket.
Imperial coaches are all around us. Riley tried the same thing at Oklahoma two years ago when a student newspaper reporter, dissatisfied with Riley’s refusal to discuss his quarterbacks, went to a nearby rooftop, got out the binoculars, watched practice, and deduced that Caleb Williams would be starting. Armed with this priceless nugget of intelligence, TCU only lost to Oklahoma 52-31. In between, Riley barred players and coaches from all media, not just the OU Daily.
Riley has been treated nicely by LA media since he arrived and began hiring Hessians from all points of the football compass, including Williams, who won the Heisman last year. USC did lose the Pac-12 championship to Utah and then the Cotton Bowl to Tulane, whose budget probably doesn’t exceed what USC spends on video equipment, but Riley was virtually unscathed.
His complaints about Evans, who parenthetically is one of the best young sports writers in America, were laughably picayune. Evans had addressed school president Dr. Carol Folt as “Carol,” and he asked questions that fell outside the Trojans’ media time period and Designated Player Encounter Zone. This was considered uppity behavior and required a timeout. But Riley was under the impression that Evans works for him, because, hey, doesn’t everybody at USC?
These sins were so profound that USC was poised to impose new media guidelines:
— McClintock Avenue, which goes by the practice field, cannot be called a “two-lane” road. It must be called a “thoroughfare of multiple direction.”
— Williams cannot be asked about his upcoming decision about turning pro this year unless the words “Dr. Pepper” are included in the question.
— Riley must be addressed as “Respected Comrade” before each question, although “Supreme Leader” is also permitted on Wednesdays.
— Defensive coaches are usually performing “tasks that are vital to the well-being of The State” after practice, and are not available.
What really came out of Evans’ offending story, the one about Quinten Joyner coming out of his shell, was the way USC tells its players what to say to the media. Again, all college teams and many pro teams do versions of the same thing. In this case, Riley is assuming the players aren’t smart enough to speak and think for themselves, even though they all have been admitted to an exclusive university that routinely turns down high school valedictorians who apply. Gee, that seems uncharacteristic for USC, admitting students who might not qualify under normal circumstances. I’ll check with Felicity Huffman and get back to you on that.
This was also an opportunity for Jennifer Cohen, who became USC’s athletic director a couple of weeks ago, to demonstrate who was running the athletic department. At first she made it clear Riley was. Whether she played a role in Riley’s reassessment isn’t clear, but her first instinct was to fold. But at least USC realized it was either wise, or savvy, to reconsider.
Riley was coaching Oklahoma when Kyler Murray won the Heisman, and the Sooners were preparing for their usual College Football Playoff loss, this time to Alabama. Quinnen Williams of the Crimson Tide was asked about Murray.
“Kyler Murray, he ain’t all that,” Williams said, at which point an internal alarm began blaring. Williams quickly remembered the media indoctrination he had received from Nick Saban and went into scramble mode.
“Oh…Kyler Murray…I mean, he’s a great player,” Williams said.
The point is not that Riley is a dictatorial rube, or would like to be. The point is that most post-game and post-practice interviews are meaningless, unless they are conducted one-and-one and in-depth, which hardly ever happens anymore.
Over 49 years in the newspaper business, I developed thousands of regrets. The biggest one was about quotes. Given another chance, I would use maybe 70 percent fewer of them.
The most egregious interviews, of course, happen during a game and are conducted by helpless TV sideline reporters. They are needlessly intrusive, for one thing. I doubt Chris Fowler of ESPN would allow anyone to interview him while he’s trying to call a third-and-goal. And they give us almost nothing.
Gregg Popovich has made a cottage industry out of dumping on these interviews. Very occasionally there is someone like Michael Malone, of the Denver Nuggets, who will consider a legitimate question and answer comprehensively, but the rest of them can’t wait to get back to the huddle, where they belong. As for “live” interviews of baseball players in the field, they’re empty and distracting, with the potential for outfield collisions.
The sideline interview is one of the few times I’ve actually wanted to be a coach:
“Tell me how you were able to come up with this win today.”
(Deep breath, knowing smile: “The inexorable human spirit.”)
“What does this say about your team?”
(Thoughtful pause: “I’d say, always take the under.”)
Quotes became very important when sportswriters actually got out of the pressbox and into the locker room, back in the days of pipes, tophats, Western Union and typewriters. They still are important when there’s a question about coaching strategy, or a reaction to an unusual occurrence. When Kendrys Morales hit a game-winning grand slam and broke his leg in the home plate celebration in 2010, the Angels were so grief-stricken that they spoke from the heart.
Of course, some athletes prove they can’t handle media interactions. The other day, Chicago Bears’ quarterback Justin Fields reacted to two bad games by saying he needed to pay less attention to the coaches and more to his own instincts. ‘They are doing their job when they are giving me what to look at, but at the end of the day I can’t be thinking about that when the game comes,” he said. “Thinking less and playing more….I think when you’re fed a lot of information at a point in time and you’re trying to think about that info when you’re playing, it doesn’t let you play like yourself.”
Fields must have noticed the social-media feedback on this. Later that day he said he would “never blame anything on the coaches” and that everyone should “put it on me. I need to play better. That’s it, point-blank. That’s what I should’ve said in the first place.”
He also said his quotes were “taken out of context,” which is the default position for anyone who says what cannot be said.
That’s pretty tame stuff for the Bears when you think about the mid-1980s, and when Jim McMahon and Mike Ditka and Steve McMichael and Buddy Ryan were playing verbal paintball every day. And the 1985 team won a Super Bowl and lost one game all year.
Over the years the athletes learned the lingo, and the quotes flattened into irrelevance. “Both teams played hard,” LaDainian Tomlinson would say, laughing, before he began speaking his mind like a human being. He and others were exceptions, but most of them turned the interview into a pro forma ritual or a defendant’s testimony. I vividly remember a Dodger starting pitcher who said, “If not for those two innings, I thought I was pretty good.” That’s when you start wondering if you’re being played, or if the force of habit has taken over your brain.
Covid-19 interrupted all that. The locker rooms closed and the players were marched out to Zoom. Few writers went to the games. It became necessary to write columns and game stories without personal contact or meaningful dialogue. The profiles, the good stuff, went by the wayside. But the everyday stories weren’t any worse. In fact, the writer could write what he saw, instead of relying on the well-spun alibis.
On Thursday USC showed it wants to flush this mistake, and it will. Admitting mistakes doesn’t come natural to anyone, so give USC credit. But it’s wrong to say this episode is unimportant. It’s the muzzling of a talented writer who merely wants to shed light on the person inside the jersey and the journey he’s making, and that light, 99 percent of the time, will benefit USC even if Riley can’t dictate all the terms.
Mostly, it’s unfortunate when such a writer appreciates a player’s story, and his life, more than a coach does.