Taking on a sacred cow
After the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser had broken the story of a former Auburn University football player's allegations that he had received money from school coaches and alumni, the paper found itself riding a two-headed tiger.
Subscriptions were canceled, personnel harassed, and threats made against the paper and its reporter in the wake of the Sept. 27 story. Auburn Tiger fans became irate over the paper's coverage of Eric Ramsey's allegations, which are based on audiotapes he said he had secretly made while a scholarship player for Auburn.
Advertiser publisher Richard H. Amberg Jr. said the newspaper had drawn fire from fans enraged by what amounts to sacrilege in Alabama.
"Sports is the religion of Alabama. This confirms the unfortunate fact of life that many Alabamians are more concerned about football than about the education system in general or other pressing issues," Amberg said.
The newspaper endured the wrath of Auburn fans, but a second, more complicated part of the story involves access to Ramsey's tapes, which his attorney now is withholding.
"We've all [the media] been captives of Mr. [Donald] Watkins. It's like riding on the back of a tiger," said Advertiser executive editor William B. Brown. "We have felt we had no choice but to report on the tapes as he has released them."
Earlier this year, Advertiser news reporter Blair Robertson wrote an article about a sociology paper in which Ramsey said the university's football program was condescending toward black athletes.
By keeping in touch with Ramsey, Robertson broke the story of the taped conversations Ramsey said he had conducted with Auburn assistant coaches, alumni, and head coach and athletic director Pat Dye. Robertson heard portions of the tapes, and the newspaper published a story about Ramsey's allegations that he had received cash and loans while at Auburn. If his allegations were true, they could mean Auburn violated National Collegiate Athletic Association rules.
According to Amberg, other sports reporters and columnists in the state at first criticized the Advertiser's story, giving little weight to Ramsey's allegations and implying that Ramsey was not credible.
Brown said that when the first article about the tapes ran in September, he knew it was an important story, but no one at the paper anticipated the story the Auburn matter would become. He said he, as well as other editors and the reporter, thought they would break the story about the audiotapes, and then Ramsey would release them and the NCAA would investigate.
"I don't think anyone at the newspaper thought it would turn into what it has," Brown said. The story was picked up nationally by wire services and, soon after, many reporters were on the story. But thereafter, Ramsey secured the representation of Donald Watkins, who placed a tight lid on the content of the tapes and has released them piecemeal.
Watkins released portions of the tapes to the Birmingham (Ala.) News and later told an Advertiser reporter that he would not release more of the tapes to him because he had put together a team for release of the tapes.
Meanwhile, Auburn fans' ire against the paper that had broken the story escalated. The Advertiser received a bomb threat - the reporter, harassing phone calls - and has had 100 to 150 subscription cancellations related to the still-developing story.
On Oct. 24, Auburn head coach Pat Dye, on a radio sports talk show, was asked how he felt about the newspaper and its stories. Dye said, "I'm going to do everything I can do to let them dry up on the vine."
Amberg said his newspaper was being criticized simply because it had been the bearer of bad news. Amberg said he first heard of Dye's call for a boycott when he was contacted by news organizations for a response.
"I don't think coach Dye really meant what he said, but Auburn fans heard him, and I guess if coach Dye said to jump off a bridge, some of them would do it," Amberg said. …