An Interview with Mike Bianchi

An Interview with Mike Bianchi

An Interview with Mike Bianchi

“I don’t consider myself any more moral than your normal guy on the street who knows the difference between right and wrong…I think of myself as a fan with a forum.”

“College football is littered with scandal, and the newspapers are obligated to cover it because nobody else is.”

“…sports is important because it’s so unimportant. People want a diversion and they want to be able to laugh. I look at it like I’m sitting in a sports bar and talking to the guy on the next stool. I write about what we’re talking about.”

Mike Bianchi: Interviewed on March 20, 2008

Position: Columnist, Orlando Sentinel

Born: 1960, Gainesville, Fla.

Education: University of Florida, 1985, journalism

Career: Palatka Daily News, Gainesville Sun, Florida Today, Florida Times-Union, Orlando Sentinel 2000-

Personal: married, two daughters (8 and 12)

Favorite restaurant (home): Beef O’Brady’s, Winter Garden “good beer specials”

Favorite restaurant (road): Dreamland BBQ, Tuscaloosa, “they only serve ribs and bread – I wish they had salad”

Favorite hotel: any Marriott property

Mike Bianchi, excerpted from the Orlando Sentinel, May 23, 2007:

If only Ricky Williams were an alcoholic, he’d still be playing in the NFL.

If only he’d shown up for games haggard and hung over, he’d still have a job.

If only he’d been arrested for DUI manslaughter, he’d still be earning millions of dollars on the football field.

But Williams is seemingly just a harmless and hopeless pothead on the verge of being drug-tested out of the league because NFL powers-that-be have declared marijuana to be evil. I can just hear the NFL muckety-mucks now as they sit at the big mahogany bar at the owners meeting ordering single-malt scotches and vodka martinis and lamenting to each other, “Why in the world does Ricky Williams need marijuana to get through the day?”

Granted, it’s sad and pathetic that Williams is apparently so dependent on pot that he has allowed it to virtually ruin his career with the Miami Dolphins. But, in the grand scheme, is he really any worse than St. Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little, who got drunk a few years ago, drove through a red light and into the side of car driven by a wife and a mother named Susan Gutweiler. She died a few hours later.

Little pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, got 90 days in jail and was suspended for just half-a-season. He was arrested again for DUI a few years later but was acquitted on a technicality. He is about to enter his 10th year in the league.

In contrast, Williams has been suspended for more than a season and may be suspended yet again because the NFL, like Major League Baseball, considers marijuana a banned substance.

How ludicrous is it that baseball players can be suspended for pot, but it’s quite all right for St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock to drink himself senseless and then kill himself behind the wheel of a car last month?

The NBA has the right idea. It tests players for marijuana and counsels them against using it but rarely suspends them. Kudos to the NBA for confronting the same moral dilemma that has confronted the nation in general for decades: Why are alcohol and nicotine — drugs that cause many more deaths — legal when marijuana isn’t?…

…The reality is that marijuana is no worse for you than alcohol. In fact, I had a prominent football coach tell me once that legality not withstanding, he’d rather have a player who smoked a lot of pot than one who drinks heavily. His reasoning: The heavy drinker is more likely to compound his dependency with other problems such as fighting, DUIs, spousal abuse, etc.

Perhaps UCF athletic trainer Jeff Allen put it best Tuesday when he said, “Both alcohol and marijuana, when used in excess, are a detriment to athletic performance.”

Which brings up the question:

Don’t our sports leagues have enough to worry about in policing performance-enhancing drugs without worrying about performance-diminishing ones?

Q. Reaction to your marijuana column?

A. It’s hard for me to remember a column I wrote yesterday.

It was mixed. I got e-mails from religious people who said, ‘hey, you shouldn’t be endorsing marijuana use’, which wasn’t what I was doing. People read what they want to read. I was pointing out the hypocrisy. I mentioned Leonard Little and how he’s still in the league whereas Ricky has been banned for two years now. A lot of people agreed with me on that column, which sort of surprised me. We do live in the Bible Belt here in Orlando. Feedback wasn’t as negative as I would have thought.

Q. Does the Bible Belt affect your writing?

A. Not at all. Even though Orlando is technically in the Bible Belt it’s no different than any other metropolitan area – very diverse. It’s got one of the largest Latin American populations in the country.

Q. Wasn’t it a bold topic?

A. I don’t smoke marijuana. I know a lot of people who do – they’re not evil people. A lot of people drink and they’re not evil either. It really makes no sense to me that marijuana is against the law and alcohol isn’t. Is one really worse than the other for you? I’m no doctor but I’m sure that if you ask one he’ll tell you alcohol is just as bad and addictive as other drugs. I’m not a politician or a government official who makes the law but if you look at it logically it seems hypocritical.

Q. Do you need a sense of moral outrage to be a columnist?

A. You have to have strong opinions. You have to believe in what you’re saying.

Even though a lot of people say newspapers are dying, I still believe newspapers and news columnists are the last bastion of real journalism out there. We’re not tied to any team – we don’t pay teams to be able to cover them the way ESPN pays the NFL to televise their games – which is sort of an unholy alliance. A lot of fan websites that cover teams are in business to write positive stories about the teams they cover. Newspapers are the last credible source out there – we’re independent. We’re not the official newspaper of the Orlando Magic or the Florida State Seminoles. We can write what we want without worries about the team cutting off our access.

Q. Personally, do you have a strong moral barometer?

A. I don’t consider myself any more moral than your normal guy on the street who knows the difference between right and wrong. When an athlete does something blatantly wrong and immoral – yeah – because they are in a public forum and people look up to them and they’re making a lot of money for the privilege of doing what they’re doing. They ought to do things right in and out of the athletic arena. I don’t think that makes me different than Joe Blow on the street. I think of myself as a fan with a forum. Fans are turned off by athletes who get arrested for cocaine use and for all sorts of sundry crimes.

Q. What were you getting at in the Plancher column? (see below)

A. I was saying this is what athletes do – push themselves to the limit – sometimes sadly over the limit. I don’t know what the autopsy report will say on this kid. But it seems like more than a coincidence that four players in the state of Florida have died in football-related deaths since 2001. They were all in workouts and were all younger players. I quoted one former player saying ‘hey, this is where young players try to impress the coaches’. Maybe they are working themselves too hard, or past a reasonable limit. I don’t know if it’s the coaches or the program. Maybe it’s the makeup of athletes – it’s what they’re always programmed to do.

Q. Will you follow up?

A. It’s something we’ll follow, myself and the paper. I’m not sure of the plans, but it’s a story we’ll continue to follow. I think offseason workouts are something that needs to be looked into. You look at every player who dies – it’s a rare occurrence, but even when Korey Stringer died in the NFL it was in training camp. It’s usually when these guys are getting ready for the season.

Q. What other issues concern you?

A. Down here college football is probably the most popular sport – more fans care about it than any other sport. Florida is a relatively new state when it comes to pro sports – when I grew up here we had one pro team – the Dolphins. But college sports are entrenched. One thing I keep an eye on is if the college programs are doing things the right way. We have a history dating back to the University of Florida in the 1980s blatantly cheating – Charlie Pell was put on probation. Miami was on probation, Florida State was on probation – there’s an academic fraud investigation going on there now.

College football is littered with scandal, and the newspapers are obligated to cover it because nobody else is. If you look at the scandals the happened in the 80s it was the St. Pete Times that basically uncovered a lot of the stuff. Sports Illustrated uncovered the Foot Locker scandal (in 1993). Print journalism is doing its job when it uncovers this stuff.

Q. What makes a good column?

A. A lot of times it needs to be topical. In today’s world people are talking about the issue of the day, whether it’s politics and Barack’s pastor, or sports and the NCAA tournament, people want topical stuff. They want commentary on the news. On another level sports is important because it’s so unimportant. People want a diversion and they want to be able to laugh. I look at it like I’m sitting in a sports bar and talking to the guy on the next stool. I write about what we’re talking about.

Q. When was the last time you were in a sports bar?

A. Last week. Beef O’Brady’s.

Q. Is your job consuming?

A. I write four or five columns a week and I’m starting to blog now. They’re teaching us how to do video online. It’s becoming more time-consuming. Even when it was only doing columns you’re always thinking about what you’re going to write next. Even if you have a column due in two days you’re thinking about what angle to take. Even when I’m at home – the Internet is almost addictive – you go into your little home office to see if anything is going on I need to write about. It’s pretty consuming.

Q. Who do you read?

A. I read a lot of guys in the state first of all – that’s my coverage area. Martin Fennelly at the Tampa Tribune. Dan LeBatard and Greg Cote in Miami. Gary Shelton (St. Petersburg Times). Nationally I read guys I know – I probably should read more of the renowned guys like Joe Posnanski (KC Star) but I read Bob Wojnowski at the Detroit News – he’s a good friend. I read (Bob) Kravitz (Indianapolis Star) and (Jason) Whitlock (KC Star). If I want to get pissed off I read Gregg Doyel at CBS SportsLine – I knew him when he was a student at University of Florida. I always tease him about being too controversial. I read Mike Freeman at CBS SportsLine and the ESPN guys obviously – Jemele Hill because I know her. I read the websites.

Q. Sounds daunting – how do you find the time?

A. It’s good and bad. I still get SI. I always used to read (Rick) Reilly in the back. I find myself on the Internet so much, reading sports around the country, sometimes I don’t even get to my SI anymore – there’s just no time. I still read who’s in the back – Selena Roberts recently. I try to read the front but I rarely get to the middle of SI anymore. To me that’s sad because I used to read it cover to cover every week.

Q. Any time to read outside of sports?

A. Yeah, in the last year I’ve got back to reading books. I used to read a lot of books when I was younger and wasn’t married with kids. It’s good for writers to read books and not just other sports articles. Also, because I have kids and I’m telling them to read it’s hypocritical if I don’t do it myself. My daughter is in the seventh grade. We went to the library and checked out Animal Farm – two copies. We’ll both read and discuss it. I’m fired up but I don’t think she’s so fired up.

Ask me about what concerns me.

Q. What concerns you?

A. A lot of what we do is based on the number of hits on the web. It concerned me the other day when I was looking at our website and the most-read story was about Sam the Butcher from The Brady Bunch, who had passed away. I e-mailed our sports editor and said, ‘how are we supposed to compete with that?’ I don’t think he responded.

Q. Do you watch the web hits on your column?

A. It’s a funny thing. I don’t watch it but I’m sure the higher-ups watch it and I just wonder what they’re thinking when Sam the Butcher dies and that’s what people are most interested in. It’s hard to compete with that if you’re just covering a football game. I’m going to write more Florence Henderson columns, obviously.

The other leading story was about Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island getting arrested for marijuana. I was always a Mary Ann guy. A lot of guys liked Ginger but I was always a Mary Ann guy. Now I’m starting to question my taste.

Q. Too bad it didn’t happen last year – you could have thrown it into your marijuana column?

A. Right. Even Mary Ann smokes.

Q. What was it like to work in Palatka?

A. I worked there part time in junior college. What was it like to work in Palatka? The joke back then was that Palatka was such a small town that you didn’t need turn signals on your car because everybody knew where you were going.

Mike Bianchi, from the Orlando Sentinel, March 19, 2008:

Almost always it happens during off-season workouts.

This is the time of year when football players are programmed to give absolutely everything they have.

To leave it all out on the field.

To pay the ultimate price.

Sadly, yet another one did just that Tuesday when UCF freshman wide receiver Ereck Plancher passed out after completing a conditioning drill.

He never again woke up.

Another good kid with a bright future dies trying.

Just like USF freshman back Keeley Dorsey last year at this time. And just like University of Florida
freshman Eraste Autin before that. And just like Florida State
freshman Devaughn Darling before that.

Four college players from this state have died football-related deaths this decade — all of them freshmen, all of them in the offseason. Teenage boys working and training and lifting and running and trying to build themselves into young men.

“Every young football player knows the offseason is when you work the hardest and try to impress the coaches,” former UCF wide receiver Jimmy Fryzel said Tuesday when he heard the news. “The offseason workouts are usually hell. That’s when you have to really push yourself to get better.”

There is still so much we don’t know about what happened Tuesday. All we really know is this: Plancher completed all the weightlifting and agility drills with the rest of the team. He listened to Coach George O’Leary give last-minute instructions about what was supposed to be the official start of spring practice today. Then, after the team dispersed, Plancher went down to one knee. And then he crumpled to the ground. And he never regained consciousness.

“There is no sign of anything that would lead us to think that something was inappropriate or improper,” UCF police Chief Richard Beary said. “It’s just a tragedy that happened to a fine young man.”

In the coming days, there will no doubt be a medical explanation as to what happened Tuesday, but there will never be a logical explanation. You can never explain how and why this could possibly happen to a kid like this.

All Plancher ever wanted to do was work hard and make something of himself. According to those who knew him in his hometown of Naples, he worked two jobs in high school, played three sports, never missed a Wednesday night Bible study, helped take care of his kid brother and still managed to make the National Honor Society and graduate early with a 3.9 grade-point average.

Don’t even try to make sense of this. It’s impossible. An athlete dying young — is there anything more devastating than unrealized hopes and an unexplored future lying motionless on a cold floor?

“When somebody so young dies on the football field, it’s the worst nightmare imaginable,” says Joan Autin, whose son Eraste died of heat stroke at UF in 2001. “You just don’t think it can happen to your child.”

But it can. And it did. Because if you’re an athlete sometimes you push your body to painful places the rest of us can only imagine. Eraste Autin died when his internal thermostat topped out at 108 degrees in Gainesville’s fiery summertime heat. Darling died when his heart failed as he was put through FSU’s famously fatiguing early-morning “mat drills.” Dorsey, a workout warrior, died of cardiac arrest while pumping iron at USF last year.

We don’t know yet how Plancher died, but his high school coach is pretty certain of one thing:

“I’ll guarantee you whatever drill they were doing,” says Chris Metzger, who coached Plancher at Naples Lely, “Ereck was giving it all he had to make himself better.”

Why — why does this happen on the day before spring practice is scheduled to begin?

Isn’t spring supposed to symbolize a new beginning, not a tragic ending?

And why is it we are told over and over again that offseason workouts are where our athletes are made?

Too many times, way too many times in recent years, this is the ghostly place where our athletes are lost.

(SMG thanks Mike Bianchi for his cooperation)

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