The Coronavirus Storytelling Project
Oklahoma journalists share their stories of how they or their fellow Oklahomans are coping with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and these difficult times. Find the entire series here.
Mike Gundy went cuckoo, and I was on furlough. Of all the rotten luck.
I sure would have enjoyed writing about Mike Exotic.
We’ve gone more than a month without sports, I make my living writing about sports, and when something interesting finally happened, my pen was gone, my laptop closed. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, I was furloughed from my job as a sports columnist at The Oklahoman.
No new work published, no taking our calls, one week a month for three months. And my first week was April 6-12.
Most journalists don’t have an off switch. Vacations, furloughs, sometimes even sleep, our minds are churning. We see stories everywhere we go, including our dreams. And so on the Tuesday of my furlough, I sat at my makeshift desk in my living room — my bride of 40 years has taken over my home office — and joined Gundy’s teleconference with college football writers. I had no intention of asking questions; just thought I would listen along so I wouldn’t be too far behind when work resumed.
Then Gundy opened his teleconference with a 20-minute preamble of crazy talk. My eyes widened, my ears burned, my mind raced. Then I remembered, dang, I can’t even write about Gundy talking nonsense. I’d have to wait at least six days to call him Mike Exotic.
The long hair. The animal sanctuary. Bizarre behavior. The Oklahoma State University football coach has some similarities with the Tiger King, the Wynnewood zoo operator who has become a national sensation via Netflix’s docuseries. Gundy is not a convicted felon and hasn’t run for president of the United States, so there is a limit to their likenesses, but still.
Gundy rambled on about the state of the country, ripping the mainstream media and declaring America in much better shape than is being portrayed. Then Gundy machine-gunned all his ideas for getting his sport up and running, including a return to campus for football employees by May 1 and players to follow two weeks later, so that football’s economic engine could start humming. All in direct conflict with the decrees of OSU, the NCAA and the medical experts.
Gundy’s jabbering was gold for the content-starved sports world. It was so jarring that OSU officials felt compelled to issue a press release before sundown, basically renouncing everything Gundy had just said without naming him. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. By Saturday, Gundy apologized for offending whoever was offended.
When Gundy famously unleashed his “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant in 2007, I was on the front row of the press conference, about 15 feet from Gundy. My biggest regret from that day is not stopping Gundy about halfway through, telling him we get his point, time to settle down. I’ve known Gundy since 1985, when he was 18 years old and I was 24. I don’t know if he likes me, but I think he respects me, at least as much as most in the press box crowd. Part of me wanted to jump through the phone that Tuesday and rescue Gundy from the rabbit hole. But I realized that was impossible; I’m on furlough.
This furlough could be worse. With the coronavirus, there’s a Gundy every day for my colleagues on the news side. At least sports have been shuttered. If you’ve got to be silent, this is the time. My colleagues, though, are being asked to drop their pen and pad during one of the biggest stories of our lives. That can’t be easy. If the NBA season returns, and I’m furloughed during the playoffs, it’ll be me going cuckoo.
No matter what you think of journalists these days, most that I know simply want to inform. Most aren’t under contract, but they still have a compact, a covenant, not with their employer, but with the public. I call it a connection with my readers. I like to believe they depend on me, and I certainly depend on them.
A former comrade reminded me the other day of something I told our editor many years ago. “Just don’t take my readers away from me.” Or vice-versa. And the furlough took me away from my readers.
There are many things good and bad about the technology and the digital age in which we find ourselves, but the best thing professionally about technology has been the stronger link we’ve made with readers. They can and do correspond with me on a regular basis, with ideas, criticism, praise and sometimes friendships that spring out of the wires and satellites that brought us together.
I figure I write 350 days a year. I blog daily even on vacation. I don’t want to turn off the spigot. I want the communication to keep flowing. If readers keep reading, I’ll keep writing. It’s a relationship that’s important to me, and when furlough laws say that not only are you not getting paid, but you can’t write, that’s adding insult to injury.
That’s one of the things that was so disheartening about Gundy’s message. He told us where he was getting his coronavirus news. The One America News Network. Too many Americans rely on networks like MSNBC and Fox News, which are public relations firms masquerading as news organizations. They are on the fringe of news. OANN is already over the cliff, espousing one conspiracy theory after another.
Too many Americans have blurred vision when it comes to media. It all looks the same to them. They have lost the art of discernment, the gift of trust. More media than ever before, but Americans might be less informed than ever before.
Any other time in my columnist career, I would have jumped right on the Gundy story. I would have immediately started writing about what an embarrassment he was to OSU and to the state. How Gundy weighing in on public health decisions, such as when to bring football players back to campus, is the equivalent of a fan who wants Gundy to go back to the single wing.
For someone of Gundy’s status to talk nonsense at a time like this is alarming. And I had no place to even write about it for six days.
This first furlough is up. Here’s hoping all the furloughs will soon be gone. There are more Mike Exotics to write about, and a covenant to restore.
Berry Tramel is a columnist for The Oklahoman, where he has worked since 1991. He was a 2018 inductee into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame.
More about the project
The Coronavirus Storytelling Project
Three organizations join forces to help struggling Oklahoma journalists, along with the citizens who benefit from their critical work.
Journalists can go to oklahomawatch.org, or to this link, to apply each week for the grant. The deadline will be midnight Saturday. The recipients will be chosen each Monday for work that week.