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When ‘why’ can’t be answered, there is no story

Saturday, May 19, 2007 | 11:29 a.m. CDT; updated 6:53 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

A story we didn’t publish has been the subject of conversations around the Columbia Missourian for the past week or so. Many people have thrown in their opinions on how to handle the firing of Missouri lacrosse club coach Kyle Hawkins.

Let’s start with the facts — always a good place to start when you’re trying to commit journalism.

Kyle Hawkins is coach of the club lacrosse team at MU.

Kyle Hawkins is a gay man. He went public with that fact last year. News media, both print and online, trumpeted the story. There is even a Wikipedia entry that calls Hawkins “one of the first openly gay male coaches of a men’s team sport at the collegiate level.”

But like many Wikipedia entries, that’s not entirely true. Again, Hawkins coached the Missouri club lacrosse team. It is not a varsity sport, and Hawkins is not a university employee.

We also know that recently, Kyle Hawkins’ contract was not renewed.

So why did Missourian editors hold the story? Because there was one big question that could not be answered.

Why was he fired?

The truth is, we don’t know. The members of the lacrosse club say it wasn’t because he was gay. Even Hawkins, while asserting that his firing was unjustified, does not allege that his firing was related to his sexuality. In fact, his contract was up last year, just after he revealed publicly that he was gay. It was renewed then.

Hawkins offered a string of impressive-sounding accomplishments.

But because lacrosse is a recreational sport and not an NCAA sport those statistics are impossible to validate.

The dropping of a club sport coach would typically not be a news story. Club sports operate below the attention-level of most fans. And that’s the way they’re supposed to work. There are 40 club sports listed

on the Mizzou Rec Web site, from rodeo to ultimate Frisbee. Many club sports don’t even have coaches but are just groups of students who want to play sports for fun.

Clearly this story would rise to the level of news if anyone involved alleged that Hawkins was fired because he was gay. But if no one is saying that, is it right for the Missourian to publish the story and thereby make that inference?

That’s what The Associated Press did on Monday, when it sent the story out over the news wires. The story appeared in other local and national media, including ESPN. Bloggers and Web sites, who don’t play by the same rules, have been going crazy.

Admittedly, there is news value in the headline “Gay coach is fired.”

But journalism, at its simplest, should be based on facts and verification.

And when you look at the facts, the apparent news value disappears.

It is nearly impossible to publish this story without leaving the impression that the coach was fired because he is gay.

In a case like this, even a simple reporting of the facts presents as truth something the Missourian couldn’t verify.

Therefore, a responsible journalist wouldn’t publish it.

- Greg Bowers is the Sports editor for the Missourian. He can be reached at 882-5734 or by e-mail at bowersg@missouri.edu.


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