A teachable moment
We should make the lastest Dolphin controversy about us, not them
Five days ago, I started to write a column about Gary Dolphin, Gary Barta, King Kong references in sports, the University of Iowa’s often tone-deaf athletic department, public discourse, the struggle to find a happy medium when it comes to sensitivity in today’s society, and the importance of steadfast leadership during times of turmoil.
Obviously, I had a lot to say. I climbed onto my soapbox, ready to rant and rave and fire up the masses.
And then something made me stop. I decided to instead pay attention to what others were saying. Listen more. Have conversations with people who felt differently than I did, and find out why.
We’re doing too much of the one-sided stuff lately. In sports. In politics. In life. The tone has become much less civil; the level of respect, diminished. Thanks in large part to social media, we’re often talking just to hear ourselves talk. Waiting for the other person to cease typing, only to attack with our own set of opinions – as if it’s imperative we get our point across as quickly and loudly as possible. Rather than dissecting why others believe what they do and what it all means, we retreat to our own echo chambers and confirmation bias.
It’s a safe haven many of us know all too well these days.
Dolphin referred to a University of Maryland player as “King Kong” following Iowa’s late loss to the Terrapins last week. I initially dismissed the comment as innocuous, knowing full well this has been a descriptive term commonly used in sports to describe a dominant player – regardless of their race – for decades.
While I still fully believe Dolphin meant no harm in using the phrase, I also began to realize the King Kong comparison – literally or figuratively – simply wasn’t acceptable in the eyes of many African-Americans. I’m almost ashamed to admit now that it had never really crossed my mind why such descriptive terminology could be interpreted as demeaning rather than empowering.
And that’s the point here. I took what others were saying into consideration, looked at a situation from a perspective that wasn’t my own, and tried to both broaden my horizons and further develop my point of view. Not just as a journalist, but as a human being.
This isn’t about Dolphin, who was oddly given a lengthy, rest-of-the-year suspension despite apologizing for something he said without malicious intent or controversy until days later. And it isn’t about Barta, Fran McCaffery or the Iowa athletic department, which seems to fumble away any and every opportunity to be both transparent and educational when the opportunity presents itself.
These are people we don’t really know and situations completely beyond our control. It’s not up to them to teach us how to act or what to believe. We shouldn’t take our cues from false idols, but rather, use their words, actions and behaviors – good or bad – to evolve.
Ultimately, we are in no position to judge from afar. I would like to see Dolphin reprimanded, but reinstated. I would like to see Barta address the situation publicly, rather than leaving so much up to interpretation. But I don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors, and any attempt to read the tea leaves under these circumstances almost always becomes an exercise in futility.
So instead, I’ll take all of the time and energy I may normally use analyzing an issue like this as a distant observer and have more conversations on a personal level. With my wife. Kids. Family. Friends. Co-workers. The people who impact our lives every single day. The people who actually count.
That’s how the ugliness of today’s world – from words to actions, from entertainment to politics – must be addressed. The more we open our ears and minds to each other — admitting we aren’t always right, we don’t have all the answers, and we have plenty to learn from our neighbors – the better off we’ll be.
If we would just take the time to truly listen.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @MessengerSports