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Conflicting Interests: Why Urban Meyer and David Weeks Are Wrong

Because the "real" job makes it harder to post with any regularity -- and because the hiring of Tony Barbee is about the only non-game news right now -- allow your humble correspondent to catch up on a couple of stories that he missed this past week as budgets and major education reform began working their way through the Florida Legislature.

Starting with Urban Meyer's rant against an Orlando Sentinel reporter. Anybody paying attention to the SEC over the last few days knows the basics of the story, and I sincerely doubt that anything I say is going to change anyone's mind. Most of those who like Urban Meyer the way he is are going to see this as another example of his leadership of men; those who don't are going to point to it as another reason why even Kim Jong-Il would call Meyer a control freak.

There's one part of the exchange that offended me a bit more than anything else -- even the carefully worded threat of violence against Fowler.

You do it one more time and the Orlando Sentinel's not welcome here ever again. Is that clear? It's yes or no.

Understand I come from a political reporter's perspective on this. The stakes are higher in my profession -- like it or not, we are the last watchdogs of democracy -- and the claim that one is being "quoted out of context" is a politicians way of saying, "A reporter accurately quoted me saying something I wish I hadn't said."

But threatening to cut off access is a (usually unsuccessful) way of attempting to influence the tone of coverage in your favor. Nothing else. This has happened to your humble correspondent before -- I was barred from an otherwise open press conference because the governor's office thought the timing of one of my questions in an earlier interview to be inappropriate. (And didn't like the fact that the question was about the governor's truthfulness in a court case.) The situation got way out of hand -- those in the press van that carried reporters to the governor's mansion had to present photo IDs to prove they weren't me -- and all it did was piss me off and make the governor's office look petty to practically everyone else in the press corps.

Urban Meyer looks bad in this case because he acted like an ill-tempered idiot. Certainly, he would have the right to bar the Orlando Sentinel from practice if he wanted to -- but having the right doesn't make you right. I would guess the rant had two purposes -- the first, to protect Meyer's players (an honorable instinct), and the second, to send a not-too-subtle message to the press that it best be careful in what it says about the Florida football program. This is even easier to do in football, where you have no reason to play to anyone but the base and the readers of a certain publication are even more likely to take your side against the reporter, than in politics. But it's just as wrong.

Reporters have to be able to bring the rest of us the story -- even if you disagree with their take on the particular story. Because saying that Deonte Thompson suggested that Tim Tebow wasn't "a real quarterback" is not that far removed from saying he dropped a critical pass late in the game. And if you want a reporter to be able to say the latter, he has to be able to say the former as well.

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There's also some personal resonance to another story that's been getting attention this week: the efforts by some black lawmakers and others in South Carolina to ask black recruits to reconsider their commitments to the University of South Carolina because the lone black trustee looks less and less likely to be re-appointed.

This is a personal story on a few levels. First, most of the readers of this blog know that I am a proud South Carolina graduate. I am a lifelong Southerner who considers South Carolina to be my adopted home state.

And I more than once interviewed Rep. David Weeks, the chairman of the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus, who said:

"We are asking young athletes to be aware ... there are folks in this state who say it's fine to play ball, but not be on the governing board," Weeks told The Associated Press.

Rep. Weeks and others have a legitimate point about the lack of diversity on the board of trustees. Despite the fact that it's not in line with the state's population, the university is one of the more diverse public institutions in the South. That demands more representation on the board than one, much less zero. But for the supporters of increased diversity on the board, this is the wrong move.

The first reason is the fairly obvious one -- that South Carolina players, coaches and even the board of trustees itself have no control over who is appointed to the board. That is a legislative decision drive as much by politics and the good-ole-boys network as any other appointment decision in state government. (It is not coincidental that higher education governing boards are often populated with bank presidents, former politicians and the wealthy.) We've noted here before the intersection of race and cronyism in the South and across the nation, and I suspect that's at play here. Despite being a fellow Republican, Gov. Mark Sanford -- who appointed the black trustee -- was hated by GOP lawmakers even before he went hiking the Appalachian Trail in Argentina.

But the less obvious reason is that this form of protest is in some ways counterproductive.

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For one thing, if black recruits were to listen to those asking them to play elsewhere -- and all indications are that they aren't -- it would make life far more difficult for Steve Spurrier, the same football coach who waded without invitation into one of the state's most contentious issues on the side of black lawmakers.

On a video of the banquet, Spurrier is heard saying the South Carolina-Tennessee game last year, which was featured on ESPN's "GameDay," was marred "by some clown ... waving that dang, damn Confederate flag behind the TV set. And it was embarrassing to me and I know embarrassing to our state.

"I realize I'm not supposed to get in the political arena as a football coach, but if anybody were ever to ask me about that damn Confederate flag, I would say we need to get rid of it. I've been told not to talk about that. But if anyone were ever to ask me about it, I certainly wish we could get rid of it."

The important thing to realize here is that despite Spurrier's comments and despite a long-standing NCAA ban on events in championship events in South Carolina, the flag still flies. Conservative lawmakers still make it sound like a patriotic duty to fly a flag that at best represents a separatist republic that tried to tear the nation apart. So any protest based on race in South Carolina has to deal with the question: What if it doesn't work quickly or at all?

And that's where you get to the real problem: On the off chance this protest was successful in discouraging black players from coming to South Carolina but not in changing the results of the trustee election, it could actually lead to the resegregation of the South Carolina football program. And that would be a huge stumbling block for race relations in the state. Not because of the tired excuse of standing up to "rabble-rousing," but because sports can serve as an engine for social change that means much more than a trustee election -- as long as it's allowed to do so.

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My mother sometimes tells the story of one of the first managers my father had in the retail business after my parents got married. One day, during an Auburn football game, the manager stood in the middle of the store, watching the game on TV, and yelling at one of the players going for a crucial touchdown: "Run, [n-word], run!" The story is both disgusting and comical now for the idea that, on the order of just 30 years ago, a man thought it appropriate to yell that in public.

But take a step back and the story becomes a testament to the power of sports to affect our attitudes ever so slightly: For a single moment on that Saturday decades ago, a man who couldn't get past his prejudice long enough to see how that phrase might offend others was cheering in his own way for a black man to achieve something.

And it is a story that has played out again for years and years: If at no other time, Southerners are often united on Saturday. South Carolina fans that are black and white cheer for players who are black and white. Auburn fans do the same. And Georgia fans, and Alabama fans and even Mississippi State fans.

Yes, there are problems with the South Carolina board of trustees. And yes, sports is a great way to draw people's attention to the issue. But certainly there's a way to do that without dividing people on the one day they cheer for the same thing.

It would be far better to find a way to make every other day in the South more like Saturday -- not the other way around.