Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jimmy Smith’s Long Road

I guess I’m supposed to be mad at Jimmy Smith. I sat in his living room nearly two years ago, doing a live broadcast for Channel 4, two days after Smith was charged with DUI and, according to police, tested positive for cocaine. Smith maintained that the test was a police mistake and said he wasn’t a drug user, hadn’t been in the past and didn’t plan on it in the future.

Now, of course, we know that was a lie.

But it was a part of a pattern that Smith had developed over a couple of years. The night before, Smith had committed to an appearance on our weekly show “The End Zone” only to not show. The year before, Smith had agreed to join Keenan McCardell as a co-host of “The End Zone” only to not show for the contract signing with no explanation. All the signs were there, the lifestyle, the notoriety, the availability, and the cash on hand and now police evidence that Jimmy Smith was in trouble.

But he denied it.

Flat out, looked into the camera and said he didn’t do it. Told Wayne Weaver and Tom Coughlin the same thing. Sold the story to his teammates, the fans and the media. Eventually the charges were dropped and the whole thing kind of went away. But Smith had spent the reservoir of good will he had built up during his time in Jacksonville as a Jaguar. He was known as somebody who was involved in charity work, was accommodating to the fans, and produced on the field. When he got in trouble, he was given a free pass by just about everybody, even those who thought he was guilty and lying. He had a chance, right then, to throw his hands up and say, “I’m in trouble and I need help,” and people would have rushed to the rescue.

But he didn’t. He lied instead and continued the farce.

He had medical problems, enduring three abdominal surgeries, only to return to the field and light up the opponents. He held out during last year’s training camp, until Weaver acquiesced and gave him a bucket full of money. And now he’s suspended for four games and has voluntarily entered an undisclosed treatment program. No wonder the Jaguars’ owner was furious when he heard the news.

After allegedly missing a mandatory drug test, the NFL imposed the next level of punishment on Smith, forcing him out of the Jaguars lineup and into treatment. Smith could have stayed with the team until the regular season started, but instead chose to leave immediately to seek help. That’s about the first good sign for Jimmy Smith.

There have been hundreds of guys who have fallen to the temptations of the high living lifestyle, and all have been given some kind of “wake up call” at one point or another. That’s when they have to choose to get their lives straight, or continue on a path that leads to more trouble. It might be about two years late, but Smith is at that spot right now. He can either get his life straight, or continue to think he’s fooling everybody. Smith has put a permanent black mark next to his name as a professional athlete, and as one fan said, “Brought dishonor to his name and to his family.” He’s out of goodwill from the fans. He has nothing left to spend.

I’m not mad at Jimmy Smith. I’m disappointed that he didn’t trust somebody enough to tell them the truth and get some help. More than anything, I feel sorry for him right now. He’s got a long road ahead of him.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

USA Hockey 1980: A Different Time

It was a very different time for journalism, television and the USA. Although Watergate was still fresh in our minds and a healthy amount of skepticism was essential for every journalist, there was still innocence to news coverage. The responsibility for reporters was to the viewers and there was a real attachment between the two. It wasn’t all a ratings game.

It was 1980.

A 24-hour cable news network was just starting. There were some all-sports stations, but none of them had any impact because nobody really had cable. Satellite TV was something for the science fiction movies. The Internet was a dream. Local television stations, the radio, the morning and evening newspaper were the only conduits of information into everybody’s home. There weren’t soup lines, but the economy was weak and politicians talked about the “misery index,” a combination of economic indicators that kept Americans treading water. The Cold War raged on, with America’s role in the world undefined. Iran took hostages from the US embassy in Tehran and instead of action then President Jimmy Carter advised “patience.” Although only 23-years ago, as you can see, it was a very different time.

Set against this backdrop, the Olympic Winter Games were being held in the US, at Lake Placid, NY. Live television broadcasts were still part of the American Olympic experience. Not a lot of pre-packaged personality profiles. A lot of competition and live events. Eric Heiden was on the verge of one of the greatest feats in athletic history, capturing all five gold medals in speed skating, from the sprint to the marathon. American’s still were competitive in figure skating and some skiing events but the Winter Games were not considered an American stronghold.

Twenty years earlier, the US Hockey team won the gold medal in Squaw Valley, but since then, they weren’t a factor. The USSR, (the Russians, the Rooskies, the Soviets) had put together the best hockey team in the world. Disguised as amateurs, the USSR’s Red Army team had speed, finesse, passing and the finest goaltender in the world. It was before the Olympics allowed professionals and before the NHL was really international, and the Russians weren’t allowed (or welcomed) in American sport. So a collection of college players was chosen to represent the USA on the ice, everybody hoped they could possibly get a medal, but not gold.

Hockey was not considered a huge sport across the American landscape. There weren’t any teams in the West, and certainly none in Florida or Texas (not counting the WHA). So the interest in the USA Hockey team was strictly patriotic, an us vs. them situation.

Herb Brooks’ death on Monday in a traffic accident brought all of these memories to life in an entirely different light. It really hit home how much things have changed in just under a quarter of a century. With information overload one of the concerns of news executives, it’s almost hard to believe, or remember, that people couldn’t get enough of the US Hockey team.

It was early in my career, but it was a big enough event that I recognized the significance outside of just a sporting competition. I was working at an ABC affiliate at the time, and although live broadcasts were the rule and not the exception, the USA/USSR semi-final game was played in the late afternoon in Lake Placid, so the network decided to show it on a tape-delay basis. Interest had been building in the team, and in this game. The college players wearing the red, white and blue were clearly an overachieving team. They were going to have a chance to earn a medal. Nobody thought they’d actually beat the Russians, but in that political environment, it was something we could latch onto and compare our way of life to theirs.

Our boys vs. their men.

Our freedom vs. their repression.

It seems rather quaint now, but people were adamant about being able to watch the game, on tape, as if it was live. They didn’t want to know the score, or anything about the game. So, during the early news that night, I explained that I wouldn’t be giving any information about the game. In television, “teasing” the viewer is a part of the business. Those three second “teases” that are aired at the end of commercial breaks at the top of the hour allegedly draw viewers to the next newscast. As the game was about to be broadcast by the network, our late-night anchor appears in the “tease” and says, “Cold temperatures and a big win for the US Hockey team, details tonight.” Like everybody in the newsroom, the anchor was young (she went on to have a very successful career) but she wasn’t much of a sports fan and wasn’t particularly politically oriented. Almost instantly, the phone lines lit up, first on my desk, then across the newsroom. People were incensed. I mean really angry. Like “I’m coming to the station to burn it down” angry. The game went on, we got a bunch of hate mail and more threatening phone calls, but it eventually blew over.

The US team beat the Russians 4-3. Al Michaels delivered his now famous, “do you believe in miracles” line, which seemed so right at the time because before the game, everybody admitted it would take a miracle for the US to win.

Herb Brooks was the architect of the win, a master motivator and an unmatched innovator. No matter what other team he coached, no matter what he did anytime after that, Brooks was able to help change, at that bleak moment, how America thought about itself. It might be a stretch to say he changed history, but it’s not a stretch to say he’ll always be a part of it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

He Said, She Said

An NBA star is accused of some sort of sex crime, and the usual “he said, she said” begins, while there’s a collective yawn from the public. Unless the star is Kobe Bryant and his hometown is Los Angeles. The instant Bryant was accused, the coverage has been nonstop. From the major networks to the cable channels and even the entertainment shows, Bryant’s tribulations have been the lead story. The initial reaction any NBA star getting in trouble is always “here we go again.” But with Bryant, it’s been just the opposite. Much of the press and the public don’t want to believe that Kobe could be involved in this kind of situation. The Sheriff in Eagle County, Colorado even was dismayed by the attention given to Bryant instead of the alleged victim.

But Kobe has built a reservoir of good will during his career in the public eye. He’s cooperative with the media, signs autographs for fans, and usually says the right things (in English or Italian, he’s fluent in both). He’s married. He and his wife have a child. He has a reputation for staying at home, or in his hotel room instead of sampling the nightlife in various NBA cities. His teammates say the crime he’s accused of is completely out of character for Bryant. Usually when something comes up that seems out of character for a public figure, there’s first a trickle, then a flood of corroborating stories that follow. Gary Hart wasn’t forced out of the Presidential race because of a picture taken with Donna Rice. It was the flood of other women who came forward with a similar story. Bryant’s situation is just the opposite. The women whom he’s had relationships with in the past (and it can’t be that many, he’s only 24) have defended him and his demeanor. Even the woman he left behind to marry his current wife said he was incapable of that kind of behavior.

The accuser has used a variety of surrogates to get her story out in public, calling on friends to appear on national television and offer quotes for the print media. They began by saying she came from a good family, was a popular cheerleader at the local high school and was liked by everyone. She couldn’t possibly be skirting the truth. Then the stories regarding her recent personal problems and ultimately her alleged attempt suicide surfaced. Her character is called into question. Her emotional stability seemed as anything but. Associates claimed she bragged about the encounter at a series of parties a week after she levied the charges.

The media has played a large role in how this thing is playing out. If Kobe played in Cleveland instead of L.A., would Inside Edition lead with “the latest in the Kobe Bryant situation”? A national sports magazine recently reported that several NBA players had fathered many children with multiple mothers all over the country, yet that story never made it out of the sports broadcast of the local news. Kobe Bryant’s press conference was carried live on national television by nearly every outlet. Why? So people could form an opinion for themselves? Or because this story has just the right amount of titillation and celebrity to attract viewers?

Bryant’s accuser’s identity is protected from being broadcast by law. Sexual assault was considered the most under-reported crime 35 years ago. Lawmakers reasoned, rightly so, that protecting the victim’s identity would allow more of them to come forward with complaints. The law has officially kept her identity hidden, although its spread all over the Internet and in some cases talk radio. While protecting victim’s rights is important, in this case there’s something not right about it.

Bryant has already been tried and convicted by some because of the media coverage. What if he’s found innocent? Does he get his reputation back? Do we reveal the accuser as a fraud? The penalty if found guilty is severe; being found not guilty shouldn’t have a punishment of its own, just because you’re famous. Bryant has admitted to an adulterous relationship with his accuser. He says the sex was consensual. Recently, two state courts have clarified the law regarding the definition of consensual sex, saying that if any time during the engagement one partner decides to say no, it changes from consensual sex to rape.

Will this case be tried on that notion? When did she decide this was the wrong thing to do? Lawyers will debate her original motives when she appeared at Bryant’s hotel door shortly after her working shift ended. The league is holding its collective breath, hoping the other shoe doesn’t drop on Kobe. He’s their image, their role model. A black man, who has tremendous skills, can converse at just about any level, plays for a high profile team and wins championships. Did you know Kobe was black? Or for some is he not black enough? There’s even a conspiracy theory that the whole thing is a sham, something to give Kobe some street credibility among black city kids so they’ll buy his shoe. As preposterous as that sounds, Allen Iverson’s street “image’ is given the credit as the primary factor for the popularity of his shoes. The whole marketing of the “thug life” is irresponsible to begin with, and the basketball shoe makers walk a fine line in trying to appeal to an urban audience yet staying on the right side of the law.

Bryant’s deal with a soda manufacturer was based on his clean image, easily appealing to mainstream audiences. Selling a basketball shoe is a whole other story. Who’s buying basketball shoes these days? Jr. High, High School and College age males. What demographic makes up this buying group? Young, black males. And how do you reach this demographic group? By getting one of their heroes to endorse your shoe. One of their heroes who has the right blend of skills and street appeal. Shoe sales notwithstanding, Bryant has said he’s innocent, and when all of the evidence is revealed, he’ll be exonerated. I believe him. Unless Kobe is about to disappoint all of us with some dark side he’s been hiding, some money will exchange hands between lawyers, and this episode will be over. It’s a long stretch for a lot of people to think Bryant could be that far out of line.