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COMMENT: Missouri men's basketball reporter leaves fandom behind

Friday, March 4, 2011 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:30 p.m. CST, Friday, March 4, 2011
COLUMBIA — Trevor Bayne became the youngest driver to win the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20. Two weeks later, Tom Bowles lost his job.

Bowles, a freelance reporter for Sports Illustrated, committed what some consider the cardinal sin of sports journalism as the 20-year-old Bayne crossed the finish line.

He clapped. 

One of the first things you learn as a sports writer is that you never cheer in the press box. Emotion should be present in your writing, not your actions. The second you lose your sense of objectivity is the second you remove the buffer between your job and a fan's entertainment.

I think Bowles got caught up in the moment. He slipped, and the side of him that is a fan showed through.

He said he wasn’t the only one. Others were applauding, too. He didn’t even notice he was doing it. He says his clapping was justified, and he defended his five-second lapse in a column on his website, Frontstretch.com.

Bowles is standing by his actions, but SI fired him because of them.

What does a NASCAR race in Florida have to do with the Missouri men’s basketball game against Kansas on Saturday? Well, before this season ever started, I can remember wondering if my inner fan would try to ambush me. 

How do you cover a team you’ve cheered for as long as you can remember?

You see, I was raised on Missouri men’s basketball. Being a fan wasn’t a conscious decision. It’s just the way it was. My parents graduated from MU, and my sister did, too. Like many mid-Missouri families, watching Tigers sports was a tradition.

I watched countless Kareem Rush 3-pointers on TV in my basement in Sedalia.

I looked up to Brian Grawer and thought Wesley Stokes had the coolest hair.

In middle school, I even went to Quin Snyder’s basketball camp and survived the embarrassment (I was chubby) of playing in the shirts and skins scrimmages. It was all worth it when the last day came and Travon Bryant and Jimmy McKinney showed up to sign autographs.

My aspirations to be a basketball player turned out to be as inaccurate as my jump shot. But when I stopped playing, I remained a fan. And like any fan will tell you, there’s nothing like home games against Kansas. This game is special.

It’s the reason fans were saying "Beat Kansas" before Missouri lost to Nebraska on Tuesday.

It’s the reason students stood in line at obscene hours of the morning to wait for tickets.

It's the hope that Missouri might find a way to win.

The scenario has been the same as long as I can remember. Every year, Kansas is better. The Jayhawks always win in Lawrence, Kan. But in Columbia, there’s a chance. Missouri pulls out a win just often enough to keep the seats filled with black-and-gold clad optimists. 

Some come expecting Missouri to lose, but they still arrive. If the Tigers pull off the upset, they wouldn’t be able to stand the fact they weren’t there to see it.

And when the Tigers do win, they do it dramatically, like with Zaire Taylor’s game-winner in 2009. Fans fled their seats to celebrate on the court with the players. It was hot, sweaty and full of energy. I know because I was there.

Early on, I thought if there was one game that would test my ethics, it would be Saturday’s game against Kansas. I used to joke that when this game came, I would have to sit on my hands. Now I know better.

Honestly, it won’t be hard. When I accepted the responsibility to cover the team for the Missourian, I simultaneously made the decision to turn in my fan card.

Why?

Because you can't accurately cover an event you are emotionally involved in. In other words, you can't read the label when you are inside the bottle.

When I went to the first game between Kansas and Missouri this season, I made my first trip to Allen Fieldhouse. As a fan, I would have gone in with a bias. 

As a reporter, I kept my mind open, and I was amazed at the pageantry of the historic venue. After I wrote an article about the experience, some comments came in. Some readers appreciated the story. A few readers didn't. They were Missouri fans, and they didn't like reading about the team that had just defeated their Tigers.

I understand. Maybe I would have said the same thing a while back. But I'm different now. 

This season I have watched not from the student section but from the media section. The concrete wall that separates the two is as solid as the separation between me and the part of me that was a fan. Do I miss it? No, because the trade-off has been worth it. I swapped the opportunity to cheer for an opportunity to do what I love.  

If anything, I am lucky because I will be able to enjoy Saturday’s game for what it really is, a basketball game between two teams that have no love lost for one another.

It’s certainly not a war, a dog fight or any kind of a fight in general.

I hope it’s exciting because it will give me something interesting to write about.

And I will always be a fan of that.


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Comments

Shelley Smith March 4, 2011 | 2:36 p.m.

Really nice article Ben? It's really nice to know young journalists understand the biz. Enjoy the game and what you write! I will look forward to your story!

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