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When the right thing ends up wrong

Friday, July 17, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:44 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 17, 2009

“I’m James Dudley,” he said, extending his hand.

Dudley had a problem with a story we’d run the day before in the Columbia Missourian.

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The story was about the Columbia Trojans, a ragtag football team that was putting itself together on a high school field south of town. The team was comprised of a hard-line, old-school coach and a collection of men still clinging to football dreams.

Their lives, according to the piece, were in various states of disrepair. One man was playing at the request of his mother, who was battling cancer.

And then there was Dudley, a speedy running back who was trying to put an athletic career together after serving some time in jail.

And that was his problem.

Dudley wanted the article to go further. He wanted the article to say why he’d gone to jail.

He said he’d told the reporter that he’d gone to jail for driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident, but the reporter had left the information out of the story.

When I talked with reporter Dieter Kurtenbach, he told me that J.D. Franklin, the coach of the team, had asked that details of Dudley’s jail time be omitted. The start-up organization, like most new organizations, was tenuous and Franklin was no doubt concerned with protecting his team and his players.

In a story that centered on the redemptive qualities of football, and the Trojans in particular, it seemed like a fair request.

It seemed like the right thing to do.

So, we complied with the coach.

We made a mistake.

That became clear after only a few minutes of talking with Dudley, a soft-spoken man.

Jobs are hard to find, he said. With the details of his prison term omitted, people were free to fill in the blanks. While driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident were nothing to be proud of, they fell short of conclusions that folks could come to.

“I’ve made mistakes,” he admitted. But he was trying to put things together. And he felt that an important part of his future was being transparent about his past.

I agreed.

Everyone had tried to do the right thing. The coach. The reporter. The newspaper.

But, as it turned out, everyone was wrong.

So last week, a clarification appeared on the front page of the paper edition of the Columbia Missourian. The online version at ColumbiaMissourian.com was revised.

It seemed like the right thing to do.

 Greg Bowers is sports editor at the Columbia Missourian.


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