As someone who teaches journalism and serves as faculty adviser to The Leader, I felt compelled to respond to the letter published in the March 6 issue in which EC Tennis Coach Anthony McPherson criticized the journalism practiced by one of my students, Rick Schneider.
Criticism of their work is to be expected by student journalists, and although I normally use such criticism as good teaching moments it is rare that I share those lessons with the public. Coach McPherson, your letter is the exception. The personal and vicious rant you leveled at this student was not only startling in its brutishness but also for its general inaccuracies about what constitutes professional journalism.
First of all, when you attacked Rick’s column on women’s tennis, you accused him of having “blurred the lines between a news story and an opinion piece.” You even added that Rick seems “incapable” of knowing the difference. In professional journalism, which is the kind I teach, a news story is expected to be fair and unbiased. A column is not a news story. It is an opinion piece. When Rick suggested that the women’s tennis team might have a better record if it had better practice facilities, he was simply voicing his opinion. Attacking an opinion writer’s opinion is fair game, but attacking an opinion writer for having an opinion is more vindictive than informative.
Secondly, you said Rick should be “ashamed and apologetic to those in the field of journalism” because it was his opinion that the tennis team were “losers.” Actually, his column said the team has a losing record (which I believe is true). Instead of bashing the team, he was suggesting ways the school could offer better support. Sports columnists are expected to offer a perspective on a team that others might not see, including the coach, and Rick did exactly that. As for apologizing to the field of journalism, over his four-year career at Elmhurst, Rick has been given a dozen awards in state competitions judged by professional journalists, making him perhaps the most highly-decorated student writer in our college history. And when you suggested that perhaps all those awards had “gone to your head,” that just proves you never met the man.
Third, you accused Rick of being “journalistically and socially irresponsible” and that perhaps he should find another career choice since “sports’ writing is above your grade and your writing abilities are less than the athletic abilities of my players and team.” I’m not exactly sure how to compare writing and athletic skills, both are tremendously difficult activities with inherent skills necessary for each. Still, since you did inquiry about how many schools The Leader competes against each year (although the article about the most recent awards did say 35 colleges entered the competition), I can point out that a team of student journalists from Elmhurst College has brought home the state championship five times in nine years. That Rick was a leader on two of those championship teams should speak greatly about his writing abilities and his future in the field of sports journalism.
Finally, you suggest that Rick try out for the women’s tennis team because they want to “teach him a thing or two.” I honestly don’t know how to respond to this. Our idiomatic use of language allows for different interpretations when someone tells us they want to teach us a thing or two. It could mean a sincere effort to give someone information they are lacking, but it also has connotations often practiced by a playground bully. Guess how your line was received by the student journalists on this campus?
Every coach in history has bristled when the team comes under a negative media scrutiny, but, as you hopefully know by now, that comes with the job. If you think college sports is immune to that kind of attention, or that sportswriters should focus more on an athlete’s GPA as you suggested, I could say that perhaps you are the one who should consider another line of work. But that would be rude, don’t you think?
Dr. Ron Wiginton
Professor of English