Cheater prospers, after all

Contrast coverage of Briscoe, Romo: the wrong message

Oct. 22, 2005

by David Kopel


Two drug-abusing former Denver Broncos have "written" autobiographies (with assistance from professional writers). One of those books, Romo: My Life on the Edge - Living Dreams and Slaying Dragons,"by" linebacker Bill Romanowski, has received major sales-boosting publicity from local and national media during the past week. The other book is one that you've probably never heard of: The First Black Quarterback: Marlin Briscoe's Journey to Break the Color Barrier and Start in the NFL.The differing media treatment of these two books says a lot about what's wrong with sports coverage these days.

Briscoe was the hero of the 1968 Broncos season. The Broncos lost their first three games, and lost their quarterback to a season-ending injury. Coach Lou Saban made a desperate move, signing Briscoe. He earned the nickname "Marlin the Magician," and not until the John Elway era did a Broncos quarterback run as well as Briscoe. He passed for 14 touchdowns (still a record for a Broncos rookie QB), and led the team to five victories in the 11 games he started - more wins than the Broncos had achieved in any of the five previous seasons. He was also the first black man ever to start at quarterback in the NFL, overcoming a prejudice that black athletes were not intelligent enough for the position.

Briscoe went on to play wide receiver with the Miami Dolphins, help them win two Super Bowls, and earn himself a Pro Bowl appearance. In retirement, he nearly destroyed himself with drugs and wild partying, and almost got killed in a gang kidnapping. He finally cleaned up his life, and his autobiography is a well-written, interesting story of the multiple rises and falls, and final victory, of a poor boy from Omaha.

The First Black Quarterbackwas published in February 2002. Media attention for the book? None in the Post.Newscolumnist Sam Adams gave the book several paragraphs in three columns in 2001-2002.

Contrast the minimal attention for Briscoe's book with the coverage for Romo, co-authored by former Newsand Postsportswriter Adam Schefter. As Postsports columnist Mark Kiszla, a consistent critic of Romanowski, once observed, Romanowski was "a pill-popping, cheap-shotting linebacker loathed throughout the NFL as the game's dirtiest player." (Aug. 17, 2000).

Romanowski's reward for a career of cheating? An interview with 60 Minutes, broadcast last Sunday, and hyped all day locally by CBS 4 News. Front page coverage in The Denver Postfor his book-promoting 60 Minutesinterview, plus Newscoverage of the interview on the front page of the sports section. And three more Poststories in the past week, plus one in the News.

To the credit of the News,the paper also ran a sports column by Dave Krieger dissuading readers from buying Romanowski's book: "I don't believe a word the guy says." Krieger pointed to Romo's previous "pious interviews about his devotion to healthy living" and concluded that his book is "just another expedient fairy tale - his specialty."

Monday's Caplis & Silvermanradio show on KHOW-AM (630) spent lots of time slamming Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer for his loutish phone call to Newscolumnist Penny Parker. Dan Caplis repeatedly complained, as he often does, about the bad example that was being set for children. Yet earlier in the program, Caplis and Craig Silverman themselves had set a terrible example for children, by conducting a lengthy publicity interview with Romanowski's co-author Schefter. It would be an understatement to say that neither Cap-lis nor Silverman conducted a challenging cross-examination of Schefter, as they do when they want to criticize a guest's agenda.

After Watergate, many criminals from the Nixon administration wrote self-serving autobiographies. "Don't buy books from crooks," many people responded, and donned T-shirts with the slogan.

The slogan reflected the principle that wicked people should not be rewarded by making money from book royalties. A corollary for sports fans might be "Don't buy books from cheaters." For the media, the slogan ought to be "Don't publicize books from cheaters."

The media can't change the minds of some so-called fans - the moral descendants of the crowds at the Roman gladiator fights - who cheer Romanowski and other dirty players. But the media can at least make its own stand for appropriate conduct. Although the Post'sKiszla is so relentlessly negative that he makes Eeyore sound like a cockeyed optimist, Kiszla has performed a public service by denouncing the degeneration of the Broncos, who became, as he wrote on Nov. 11, 2001, "the lowdown, dirtiest team in the league."

Decent parents still teach their children that "cheaters never prosper." When the media serve as publicity agents for a cheater whose career was the antithesis of sportsmanship, the media teach the wrong lesson to everyone.  

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