"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Goalpost incident was day of infamy here

I suspect it has been a while since anyone wrote anything for the public record about the goalpost incident. No one wants to dwell on something this unfortunate. But it needn't be swept under the rug either.
The University of Minnesota-Morris student who died in the incident deserves to be remembered, for one thing. I'm sure many Morrissites can remember where they were and how they reacted when they learned of that very public tragedy (if they weren't part of the crowd).
It was Homecoming weekend amidst a perfectly fine fall weekend. I was at the UMM Homecoming football game for the first half but wasn't present for the second, thus I didn't see the incident. I'm rather glad I didn't. I suspect that the fans who were there feel haunted by it.
In the days that immediately followed, it was hard to get people to open up about it. I had to try because I was in the news media. I ended up quoting from an ESPN2 web article, which had a pretty decent account from a UMM student fan. It was hard to come out a winner when your task was to write about it. And my journalism was not taken in stride by all.
My awareness of the incident began when I was dining at the Morris Pizza Hut restaurant that evening. I began hearing "buzz" from a nearby table about something disturbing that happened at the game. Some UMM students were seated at that table. One of them called a friend who was out and about and that friend came and joined them. They all then began sharing what they knew up to that point. They were not yet aware that someone had died, only that someone was badly hurt.
As a journalist, I was always prepared to get blindsided by something or to expect the worst sometimes. But I wasn't prepared for any of this. I had made my rounds that day surrounded by a pretty happy atmosphere.
Usually the biggest worry felt by college administration for Homecoming weekend is an excessive air of celebration, but not in the context of someone getting killed on campus. An instant pall was cast on everything. The fact that UMM achieved one of its rare football wins (for that era) was rendered meaningless.
My alleged sin was to quote from an eyewitness account that included someone running with a hammer toward the scene of it all. Since this was a property destruction incident, I'm not sure that a hammer really should have been so eye-opening. It was really just a side note.
Maybe the people who chose to criticize me were looking for a red herring type of issue. I suppose the real issue had to do with oversight and control. Several weeks later I finally got to see videotape of the incident on the KSTP evening news. The whole scene looked even worse than what I envisioned.
The person who started the criticism of me also criticized others in the media who used the word "mob." But in watching the video, I felt that a reasonable person might well conclude that this was a "mob."
UMM's chancellor at the time, Sam Schuman, would later say that he wished he had personally gone down to the scene to tell the students to knock it off. Maybe they would have listened, he said.
When someone dies, everyone can think of regrets. Maybe I should have just overlooked the incident from my journalistic perch. Chalk it up to discretion.
If I remember correctly, the game summary information wasn't posted on UMM's website in time for me to use it. Perhaps that's no coincidence. Maybe everyone was told to just scatter. Maybe that's why I got a ton of phone calls at the newspaper office through the rest of the weekend, leaving me feeling monumentally exasperated. I got two calls on Sunday alone from NBC's Today Show. Imagine, here in Mayberry.
Maybe I should have gone out hunting for whatever game was in season (pheasants, whatever), except I'm not a hunter. So there I was at the newspaper office feeling like I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. And yet, when the criticism of my work came forth, one of my alleged shortcomings was "lazy journalism." Lazy journalism!
I would have liked someone making that assertion to follow me around in a typical week. But emotions were getting the best of people at that time of squirming, shame and regrets. We can probably be thankful that cellphone cameras hadn't quite come on the scene yet, because if they had, photos of the tragedy might have gotten into the grubby hands of those sensationalist national media people.
KSTP didn't get the video until the initial shock of the story wore off. By then the national media would have judged the story too stale to pile on further. Those national media people - they're animals, or "jackals" in the eyes of former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura.
I'm sure there are certain people who will laugh at me for saying this, but the goalpost incident might have had something to do with my eventual exit from the media and my employment. Newspaper executives don't like controversy. Executives at Forum Communications, a many-tentacled newspaper empire that includes the Morris and Hancock papers, are a restrained group that scrutinizes profit figures.
In my opinion, they're well aware of the shrinking state of the newspaper industry and are trying to extract as much revenue from legacy customers as they can, before everything just falls over a waterfall.
Right now they're negotiating dangerous rapids. I expect that the Forum braintrust is none too happy with what their editorial writer in Grand Forks (the Herald) did recently. Not only was that writer criticizing a Minnesota politician in oddball fashion, he was criticizing a Republican. The Forum has great affinity with the Republican Party.
Writer Tom Dennis likened Republican gubernatorial hopeful Tom Emmer - are you ready for this? - to a spokesman for the late toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
It was probably one of those impulsive things that made sense to the writer at the time. I often worked under oppressive deadline pressure, which is one of the reasons why I now like the new media so much. We write when we feel like it, when we're ready, about things we want to write about, and we can always revise and delete as we wish. I almost have to pinch myself to see if I'm dreaming.
I'm not dreaming but I am unemployed. I haven't even had health insurance for four years. Things are getting tough out there. It's a scary situation I'm in, and one that makes me feel isolated. But I was turning into a zombie trying to survive in a profession in which I already had 26 years logged.
I once read that 2005 was the peak year for newspapers gleaning ad revenue. I left in 2006. I imagine the crisis signs in the business were beginning to appear. Today it's obvious that the new media world has such overwhelming advantages over the legacy system, it's perplexing that we even see newspapers around anymore.
The final nail in the coffin might be when the U.S. Postal Service finally comes under the kind of sharp austerity measures that are clearly called for. The government shouldn't continue subsidizing a system that increasingly just thrusts things like credit card offers or advertising circulars in our face.
Someday we'll look back and be surprised at how we put up with it, just like we wrinkle up our forehead when remembering that cigarette smoke once made the air turn blue at places like DeToy's Restaurant in Morris. DeToy's is now in the business of serving good food to hungry people. It's not a hangout.
Someday soon we'll all be relying on online resources for finding out what's happening in the Morris area. No ink on your fingers. No more waiting a week and a half - ridiculous - to see some paragraphs of coverage about something that could have been covered within 24 hours.
The old system should be given a ceremonial boot.
The goalpost incident was a horrible thing that never should have happened. It happened in part because the game that day was the last to be played at UMM's old field, a perfectly good field for enjoying small college football.
Now we have Big Cat Stadium which is shared by the college and high school. I have opined before, that the stadium is working out better for the college than the high school. We'll see how the attendance patterns develop this year.
The student who lost his life in the goalpost incident was Rick Rose, who came to us from the Pacific Northwest. We should never forget him. It's hardly a silver lining, but let's keep in mind that more than one student could have been seriously hurt or killed in the incident.
And heck, even I could have gotten hurt if I had not been such a "lazy journalist" and if I had been out there, with camera, jockeying to get in position to take photos of the students who were climbing all over the goalposts, causing them to wobble before finally they crashed down.
These were not the kind of goalposts that you just "take down." I could make an analogy with the world of comedy and how you deliver a pie to the face. You don't do it with just any pie. You don't do it with a real pie. Vaudevillians developed this craft and they used whipped cream and cardboard.
The UMM goalposts were permanent fixtures that were not meant to be recklessly pulled down. Collapsible posts made of lightweight material might be OK, but in today's litigious world, let's just forget it.
The UMM goalpost incident was a true day of infamy for Morris. The weekend became ugly for me and I'll never forget it. It may be that the wheels were put in motion for my eventual exit from my profession.
I know, you're probably thinking "big deal." But it's my life and it's important to me. I can only take one day at a time now.
Rick Rose, RIP.
Good luck to the UMM football team? I really don't care that much. Maybe we should spare our youth the head injuries that come with football. Maybe we should spare the young fans the expectation that they ought to get lubricated on game day with alcohol. What a primitive set of customs.
Maybe we'll see it all fade just like that "blue" air at restaurants.
-Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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