An Interview with Tom Shatel

An Interview with Tom Shatel

An Interview with Tom Shatel

“I hate to say it, but the voices of sports columnists get a little bit lost these days, with cable, talk radio, and Internet.”

“It’s almost like fans want to be sportswriters, through the blogs.”

Tom Shatel. Interviewed August 23, 2006.

Position: Columnist, Omaha World-Herald.

Born: 1958, Tulsa, Okla.

Education: University of Missouri, BJ, 1980.

Career: KC Star 1980-90, Dallas Morning News 90-91, Omaha World-Herald 1991-

Personal: Married, two children.

Favorite Sports Movies: Caddyshack, Tin Cup, Hoosiers, Paper Lion.

Hobby: Golf.

Tom Shatel excerpted from the Omaha World-Herald, October, 25, 1995:

In his illustrious 23-year career as Nebraska’s head coach, Tom Osborne has made more than his share of good calls. This is not one of them.

I have always respected Osborne as a man and, secondly, as a football coach. But some of that respect was lost Tuesday when Osborne announced that Lawrence Phillips, who assaulted his ex-girlfriend on Sept. 10, was reinstated to the team and would be allowed to play Nov. 4 against Iowa State.

But I’ve lost even more respect for University of Nebraska-Lincoln officials, including Athletic Director Bill Byrne, who allowed Phillips to return this season. The University of Nebraska is less a quality institution today than it was yesterday. And Byrne less an athletic administrator today than yesterday.

One of the school’s students, a female, was beaten up by a fellow male student. One of Byrne’s female student-athletes was beaten up by one of his male student-athletes. And now we’re supposed to all return to the field and pretend this never happened.

….One thing is for sure: The rest of the country will see Osborne in a different light. Just months ago, the entire nation seemingly embraced him for a stately career of service to young people and the game of football. When the cleanest coach finally won the “Big One,” it gave America hope.

But today there is a spot on Osborne’s image. America is in no mood to tolerate domestic violence, especially this month, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Now Osborne has taken a young man who committed physical violence on a woman and returned him to the field in two months. Osborne says, “I can take the heat.” The heat will come, like never before.

Q. Which of your columns created the strongest response?

A. October, 1995, when (Nebraska football coach) Tom Osborne brought (running back) Lawrence Phillips back to the team (after a domestic violence incident). I said as gently as possible that it was a big mistake, that playing college football is a privilege, not a right, that you could accomplish the same thing by letting him practice if he needs structure, and by being around the team and going to study hall, that playing him sent the wrong message. I basically questioned the authority above him. That got some nice play. The majority of readers basically told me to shut up and sit down and leave town or whatever. One letter I got from a grandmother in Grand Island blamed it on the girl for getting Phillips in trouble.

I’ve talked with Tom about it since and totally believe he had the right motives – he did it for the right reasons. But I totally disagreed with him. The bottom line was Tom was trying to play him so he could get drafted and get the hell out of there.

Q. Did it change your approach to the job?

A. Not really. I was never told what to write here. I felt like I could say what I wanted. I think surviving that gave me a little more strength. I don’t flaunt that. I try to go the other way. I try to be less loud and offer more perspective. I don’t think we get enough perspective in journalism. Everything is way too loud – too much style and not enough substance. Does that make sense?

Q. Do columnists have to be moral and ethical judges?

A. That’s your job if you are a columnist. You’re not a reporter. You do it with less credibility than a priest or a judge. There’s so much out there now, I hate to say it, but the voices of sports columnists get a little bit lost these days, with cable, talk radio, and internet. It has changed the landscape of what we’re trying to do. It’s a lot different than 20 years ago.

Q. But isn’t the World-Herald still dominant?

A. This is one of the last bastions where a newspaper still is big. Everybody still reads it. Obviously small towns have Internet, but I think my voice is still bigger here than in other places. There isn’t much competition; we’re the only paper that circulates in the whole state. I think I’m the only full-time columnist in the state. There is talk radio in Omaha and blogs.

Q. How much impact do the blogs have?

A. A lot of fans put more stock in blogs than newspapers. It’s interesting to me. I read a lot of blogs and message boards. Some of these blogs are obsessed with getting things first. They want to break stories and they do. It happens. Their members know somebody and they get something. It’s almost like fans want to be sportswriters, through the blogs.

Q. Do you keep up with the blogs and message boards?

A. I like to see what the average fan is saying. Not that it affects what I write. I like to see what they’re saying. It’s like a giant sports bar. Or a bunch of small sports bars where people hang out and talk about football or sports. It’s fascinating. I hate to say it but in some cases our credibility is not what it used to be. It’s eroded.

A couple of years ago we had a story breaking here. Our sports editor said we’d hold off until the last edition, until after the TV news is over, and we’ll have a scoop. I said it will be on a website in an hour – don’t wait. We waited, and consequently we were last when we went up an hour later.

A lot of readers are going to rivals.com sites. Huskersillustrated.com is part of rivals. They do features and break news. Some of these guys help the coaches recruit, so they get scoops. They’re full-time staffers, but some of these guys are in bed with the schools and coaches.

Q. But their credibility will suffer in the long run, won’t it?

A. The public doesn’t care. People out there think huskersillustrated.com is the place to go if you want Nebraska news. It had a story today – an Arizona State quarterback is transferring to Nebraska. That’s reality. But it’s unfair if they’re in bed with the coaching staff and get special access. So it’s a different world. I think that’s where we’re going. Newspapers will exist for columns and perspective.

The other thing is if you go to J-school, be aware of this, franchises, pro sports franchises, are hiring writers who cover the teams for the websites. Jonathan Rand, who wrote a column for the KC Star, is covering the Chiefs for kcchiefs.com. What kind of access does he get? I’m wondering how long before the colleges start doing this. Before they say “we’re going to control all the information and you’re going to get what we want you to have.” Some coaches have websites – you have to monitor them to see when they break some news.

My question is “Who is the journalist?” The newspaper or the pro sports franchise? And these are guys who used to be on newspapers. The line is going to get very blurry. If you’re a fan are you going to the Boston Globe or to the Red Sox website? Hopefully you go to the Globe. It’s got one of the best sports sections around. I love to read Dan Shaughnessy and Bob Ryan.

There always will be a need for a columnist – that’s why I have a great job. But if you’re a beat writer you’re going up against rivals.com, mlb.com, kcchiefs.com, and a lot of different forces. How is the information being released in the future?

Q. But isn’t being first over-rated? What’s the difference if you post news 20 minutes earlier if your credibility is compromised?

A. I hope so. Would you rather be first or would you rather be the outlet that tells you why it happened and have the good in-depth interviews and great writing, plus the integrity and credibility? If I were the sports editor my tack would be to be best rather than first.

It’s a wacky world now if you want to be a sportswriter. And it’s changing by the year. I’m not trying to paint a scary picture.

Q. What do you read?

A. I dropped my subscription to SI because I wasn’t reading it anymore. Lots of stuff was old. I think they lost their fastball. I read espn.com. They have good writing and it’s right now. I love Rick Reilly and Gary Smith. But some stuff in SI, by the time it comes out, I’m on to the next deal.

Q. What about SI.com?

A. I read SI.com, sure. But the magazine is obsolete.

Q. Do you read ESPN the Magazine?

A. It has very good writing, too. But I always thought it was hard to read. I don’t know if it’s an ad or a story half the time. I do like the writing. But I’m not going to read Stuart Scott’s column, for god’s sake. They just hired Wright Thompson. They’re hiring very good writers.

Q. How do you stay abreast of the news?

A. Sportspages.com. If I want a column or a takeout on something that happened it’s right there. And espn.com. SI.com, CBS sportsline.com and foxsports.com all have the same stuff – basically they’re all doing the same quality. I go to espn.com out of a personal choice. I know a lot of their guys who cover colleges.

Q. Why doesn’t sportspages.com pick up World-Herald stories?

A. I don’t know. I e-mailed the guy who does that – Rich Johnson – and said I’d love to be on there occasionally. He said we needed to archive my columns but our website won’t do that.

Q. Does it have a regional bias?

A. Maybe the things we write about aren’t interesting to national people. They don’t do a lot of college stuff anyway. You don’t see a lot of Austin American-Statesman stuff.

Q. How powerful is sportspages.com in the industry?

A. It’s just a bookmark. I glance at the Top 10. I’m not interested in half the stuff. I read every sports section in the Big 12 every day. Topeka, Wichita, Boulder, Denver, Lawrence, Des Moines, St. Louis, KC. Some in the morning – some at night.

Q. Keeping up is a major task?

A. With two kids, yes. But look, in the old days I went to a bookstore in downtown Kansas City and bought week-old papers.

Q. It’s easier to be smarter today?

A. No excuse not to be.

(SMG thanks Tom Shatel for his cooperation)

TOM SHATEL

‘Osborne’s Decision Bad’

25 October 1995

The Omaha World-Herald

(Copyright 1995 Omaha World-Herald Company)

In his illustrious 23-year career as Nebraska’s head coach, Tom Osborne has made more than his share of good calls. This is not one of them.

I have always respected Osborne as a man and, secondly, as a football coach. But some of that respect was lost Tuesday when Osborne announced that Lawrence Phillips, who assaulted his ex-girlfriend on Sept. 10, was reinstated to the team and would be allowed to play Nov. 4 against Iowa State.

But I’ve lost even more respect for University of Nebraska-Lincoln officials, including Athletic Director Bill Byrne, who allowed Phillips to return this season. The University of Nebraska is less a quality institution today than it was yesterday. And Byrne less an athletic administrator today than yesterday.

Pretending One of the school’s students, a female, was beaten up by a fellow male student. One of Byrne’s female student-athletes was beaten up by one of his male student-athletes. And now we’re supposed to all return to the field and pretend this never happened.

There was plenty of time to deliberate this decision, plenty of time to mull the consequences. This was no knee-jerk reaction. But as soon as Phillips was reinstated as a student by the university on Monday, Interim Chancellor Joan Leitzel and Byrne stepped aside and let Osborne handle the tough decision, which was made in his mind long ago.

It’s not surprising Ms. Leitzel wouldn’t intervene; as an interim chancellor, this was one hot potato. But I thought Byrne would step in and hold up a stop sign. I thought wrong. As a UNL spokesperson said Monday, “Coach Osborne has the ability to suspend somebody from the team or bring somebody back.”

True. After all, Osborne is the football coach.

And maybe he’s a lot more, too.

‘Good Judgment’ “What I saw was 35 years of good judgment,” said Byrne, referring to Osborne, “and I had more access to information than the general public did. After I had access to that information, I was in complete agreement with Tom.

“This action doesn’t say what happened was right. This action says that if this had happened to Joe Q. Student, he would not be banned from extracurricular activities as long as he was a student.

“Lawrence has had sanctions and is continuing to have sanctions. Now the question will be, are those sanctions severe enough? That is a debatable point. Everyone who looks at the case will look at it a different way.”

What it looks like is carte blanche for future male students at Nebraska to harass or abuse females and get similar treatment. Byrne disagreed.

“This action does not condone what happened,” Byrne said. “This action says if you commit acts of violence, there will be sanctions. I believe the previous and ongoing sanctions justify his return.”

Restitution What we know is that Phillips must pay restitution for damage done at the apartment complex he broke into and medical or counseling fees for Kate McEwen. Those won’t be inexpensive. He also must participate in regular meetings with his counselor and psychiatrist and perform two hours of community service a week. And any further sanctions of the Student Code of Conduct “will result in significantly more severe sanctions.”

In other words, next time he may have to play on the scout team for two weeks.

If these are the university rules and sanctions, then they need to be updated. An action like this, whether premeditated or under “out-of-control” circumstances, should include a ban of all extracurricular activities – particularly for someone like Phillips, who was supposedly out of second chances. Expulsion may be a bit harsh. But maybe we should ask the victims of physical abuse and date rape about that.

So why would Osborne allow Phillips back? The image around the country will be that this is all about victories and championships, but that’s not even close.

This is all about Osborne, as college football’s Father Flanagan, looking at all the evidence and circumstances and trying to save a young life. This part of the job isn’t in his contract – Osborne offers it strictly out of his heart.

As Spencer Tracy said in the movie “Boys Town,”: “There is no bad boy.”

“Tom firmly believes in the inherent worth of young people and everyone has to have the opportunity to correct mistakes,” Byrne said. “This isn’t the Ayatollah regime around here. We don’t cut off hands, legs and feet.”

But Osborne said Phillips had been warned about staying away from McEwen and was out of chances when the incident occurred. Osborne‘s biggest mistake was initially dismissing Phillips, then reversing field and opening the door in order to give Phillips a carrot to shoot for.

Phillips‘ is a poignant story. He spent much of his childhood without parents, getting beaten down by life, without much female love to speak of. McEwen was apparently his first love, and he snapped. It’s a sad story. But, again, none of that excuses what he did.

And when Osborne says football is a “major organizing strength” in Phillips‘ life, it should be remembered that Phillips had football in his life the night he scaled a wall and dragged McEwen down the stairs.

Osborne is gambling that that won’t happen again, that weeks of counseling have changed a young man. He says, “I think we’ll see a little different person.”

We better see a lot different person.

One thing is for sure: The rest of the country will see Osborne in a different light. Just months ago, the entire nation seemingly embraced him for a stately career of service to young people and the game of football. When the cleanest coach finally won the “Big One,” it gave America hope.

But today there is a spot on Osborne‘s image. America is in no mood to tolerate domestic violence, especially this month, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Now Osborne has taken a young man who committed physical violence on a woman and returned him to the field in two months. Osborne says, “I can take the heat.” The heat will come, like never before.

Why bother? Because Osborne doesn’t care about the public outcry and won’t be swayed by the “popular thing.” Osborne has always marched to his own drummer, always been stubborn about his ways and morals. He listens to his conscience and it must be filled with emotion. On Tuesday, his voice quivered and nearly cracked when he talked about Phillips.

“I really, really tried to do the right thing,” Osborne said. “I’m prepared to live with it.”

He will have plenty of support in his home state, mostly from people who say “I trust Tom. Whatever he says is good enough for me.”

But from what I have heard and read in letters the past week, I also know that many other Nebraskans have lost some respect for Osborne today. That’s too bad. It just adds to the saddest story.

Perhaps the saddest part is that a young woman was violated here, then got lost in the debate.

Through it all, several people have wondered why Minnesota Vikings quarterback Warren Moon could beat his wife, apologize and play again without question, while Phillips is being held to another, higher standard. The best answer to that is that Phillips is still a college student and, hopefully, colleges are in the business of preparing America’s youth to become better people.

Today, the University of Nebraska has to ask itself if that is what happened here.

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