January 28, 2011

Mike Tharp: Press abused power in cutting down Cutler

"All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things."

That's a quote from Bob Knight, my favorite basketball coach.

As a lifelong reporter and now editor, I felt as if I had to stick up for fellow scribblers, no matter how many times they might ask an athlete, "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?"

(That supposedly was once asked during a Super Bowl Media Day, but it hasn't been Snoped.)

But as a onetime jock (high school basketball player on a state tournament team and in college on a national championship team from Kansas; high school basketball coach in L.A.), I have to side with the athletes this week vs. the press.

That's because of the horsebleep Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has endured after he left the NFC championship game at Chicago's Soldier Field Sunday with a leg injury.

In a sports world where serial gasbag Skip Bayless and proven liar Mitch Albom (he wrote about a game he didn't attend, as if he'd been there) make six-figure livings, it's probably inevitable that this would happen to Cutler.

The professional watchers went wild. People who've never strapped it on or laced 'em up tried to outdo one another in finding synonyms for "quitter." Men and women whose closest brush with competition has been Scrabble or Twister went after Cutler as if he'd stolen the Lindbergh baby, slashed Nicole and Ron and hidden Iraq's WMD.

Jim Trotter of Sports Illustrated wrote: "I have been a critic of Cutler for years. He has been boorish and, at times, condescending with the media and distant with the fans." And this was in a column defending Cutler.

Mike Greenberg, co-host of "Mike and Mike in the Morning" on ESPN (whose picture can be found in the dictionary next to the word "wuss") wondered aloud whether Cutler could ever undo the damage he'd inflicted on his team's confidence in him.

Callers to Chicago sports talk shows chimed in with the media mouths, figuring that since sportswriters and broadcasters are paid to cover sports, they must know what they're writing and talking about.

Except they don't.

Not in this case.

Defenders of Cutler weren't helped when a dozen NFL players or ex-jocks Tweeted their scorn at the guy. But three studs who never backed down from a fight (ask Shaq) -- Charles Barkley, legendary Bears linebacker Dick Butkus and current defensive gladiator Brian Urlacher -- ripped guys in the game for attacking one of their own.

"Nothing like jealous people who are sitting home watching," Urlacher said. "Players around the league, you said, right? Yeah, love jealous people when they're watching our game on TV while their season is over."

An MRI later confirmed that Cutler had sprained his medial collateral ligament, which wouldn't support his weight while trying to pass, let alone run.

But it's the press I come to bury, not praise. Who are they to question a player's heart? His courage? His will?

You may ask, well, then, how can a Sun-Star reporter cover a Board of Supervisors meeting when she's never been a public servant? How can a Sun-Star reporter cover health care issues when she's not a doctor or a nurse?

Easy. That coverage requires a good mind. You must be smart enough -- as our reporters are -- to ask the right questions, do useful research and talk with experts to explain an issue in a story.

In sports it's all about the body. Unless you have run lines in basketball, gassers in football and soccer, fielded 200 ground balls in an hour for baseball, you don't know what it really feels like.

The sideline sophists who criticize Cutler's "body language" or his "impassive demeanor" don't know jack about how you avoid a 340-pound onrushing lineman and still see your receiver downfield.

If you haven't felt the pain of practice and games, you don't know what you're writing about or broadcasting. Most of the sports journos attacking Cutler don't know how it feels. They can question play-calling, tactics, strategy -- all fair game (heh) for intellectual analysis.

What they don't know is the body and mind and soul and heart of an athlete. They don't know the blood, sweat and tears -- Cutler wept at his locker after the vultures landed -- that motivate a player.

Stick to what you know, sports journalists. Do that well, and your role is sound.

Go where you've gone with Jay Cutler, and poet Emily Dickinson's line will suit you best: "Success is counted sweetest by those who never succeed."

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or

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