A Cocked Pistol

The Miami Herald spared no newsprint in touting the recent literary efforts of two of its columnists. Newly published novels by Tananarive Due and Ana Veciana-Suarez have been treated to front-page mentions and unequivocally flattering reviews in the newspaper. But in the rush to promote the bejeezus out of the women, the extracurricular offerings of one of the Herald's favorite sons, wunderkind sports columnist Dan Le Batard, have been entirely overlooked.

In a current special issue of Cosmopolitan called "All About Men," the 28-year-old Le Batard demonstrates that he's not merely a scholar of unrestricted free agency and shooting percentages, but he's also a deft scribe who can thread his poesy through the squirrely thickets of love and relationships. In an 1800-word essay entitled "I Am the Hunter," the Herald sportswriter unflinchingly describes his modus vivendi relating to the opposite sex.

"Men like me travel in packs, pursuing perfume, and we find the chase more intoxicating than everything after it," Le Batard writes. "We dabble in relationships for the same reason we dabble in hunting: There's an incomparable rush wrapped in the search and discovery. But then, when the last bullet has been fired and the gun is spent, when the conquest is complete and the game is done and we get to see what we've done close-up, all that remains is the blood and the smell and a mess to clean up.

"Doesn't mean we won't go hunting again, mind you. We drink after a bad hangover, don't we?"

Though the Herald failed to alert its readers to Le Batard's Cosmo stylings, his efforts didn't escape the notice of his colleagues at Miami's Only Daily. Last week photocopies of the column were legion, and prompted heated debate. Even publisher Dave Lawrence, vacationing in Ireland, was faxed a copy.

By midafternoon Thursday, more than two dozen men and women had signed an angry letter posted on an intraoffice computer bulletin board. "While we support wholeheartedly the First Amendment right of Herald people to freelance in whatever publication they choose and to say whatever they want, we must ask whether a newspaper that takes such pride in its diversity policy will take a stand on Dan Le Batard's essay in Cosmo," the letter began.

It continued: "We must wonder, when Le Batard summarizes women as the 'blood, the smell and a mess' and sets them apart as a species by saying such degrading things as women 'hear only what they want,' how he regards the reporting and editing ability of his female colleagues.

"We must also wonder: What message is being sent to female athletes and female readers when a highly promoted sports columnist has such a degrading view of them. We hope management, which in the past has given Le Batard unprecedented public support in the pages of this newspaper, will have something to say to Le Batard and the Herald staff about this article."

The screed engendered a lively series of memos from other staff members, most of whom expressed support for Le Batard's rights under the First Amendment.

"I found Le Batard's piece hilarious," began one response, signed by "Action Line" editor Anne Baumgartner. "I laughed out loud. So I'm warped. Sue me. But what I do not find in the least bit funny is the way we howl for the blood of those unfortunate enough to say something we disagree with. You either support the First Amendment or you don't. You cannot have it both ways. If you think the man is a consummate jerk, tell him so to his face. Don't ask the company to lynch him for you."

Added photographer Carl Juste: "No individual man or woman can control the behavior or opinion of another. What Dan says or does outside the reaches and responsibility of the Miami Herald is his own business. Folks, let's not try to make it corporate policy. His actions will always be his own. If Dan killed 50 people do you think Joe Public would consider us murderers? Of course not."

This isn't the first time Le Batard has been the subject of debate at One Herald Plaza. Two years ago he was arrested on a disorderly intoxication charge at Johnny Rockets restaurant in Coconut Grove. (While New Times reported the arrest, the Herald initially chose not to, prompting an outcry from a group of University of Miami boosters who accused the paper of "an arrogant double standard" because it allowed Le Batard to write about UM football players' brushes with the law.)

Controversy number two resulted from a tongue-in-cheek column Le Batard wrote on the eve of the recent Miami Heat-New York Knicks NBA playoff series. Among other insensitive swipes in the piece -- which was entitled "New York Fans: Obnoxious! Overbearing! Unpleasant!" -- Le Batard described the typical Knicks fan this way: "He has almost as much grease in his hair as he does on his body, and he wears his baseball cap backward because, well, the hat didn't come with directions. He has pasty skin ... and he starts all sentences with the words, 'Yo, Vinny,' even when addressing his mother." Toward the end, the columnist wrote: "Then there's prehistoric Patrick Ewing, whose facial features were once used by cavemen to chase frightened woolly mammoths. The only reason Ewing isn't the ugliest person in all of sports is because a few years ago Washington imported Gheorghe Muresan from Triteni, Romania."

The piece prompted everything from accusations of ethnic and racial prejudice to on-the-spot subscription cancellations.

As the most recent Le Batard imbroglio engulfed the news operation this past Thursday, executive editor Doug Clifton agreed to hold an open forum for his staff. "There was definitely an undercurrent that this was the third big negative splash that this guy has made," comments one staff reporter who attended the meeting and requested anonymity. "A lot of people are wondering at what point is one time too many."

At 5:30 p.m. more than 50 people crammed into a small conference room for the meeting; the Broward bureau was connected by speakerphone. The mood was tense. Clifton, flanked by managing editor Larry Olmstead, opened the forum by saying he personally was "not enthralled" by the column but that he was there to listen to people's concerns. During the next half-hour, about a dozen people spoke up, some criticizing the article as disparaging and misogynistic, others reiterating support for Le Batard's constitutional right to free speech.

Le Batard wasn't present at the forum. But on Monday he posted his own missive on the Herald's computer bulletin board. "The Cosmo piece was supposed to be an indictment of men, not women,"he wrote. "...But that's not the point. The point is that I keep trampling on people's feelings, keep hurting this paper's credibility, an offense at a time, and I don't have the words to tell you how badly that makes me feel.... But my intention is never to savage for the sake of savaging. I'm not trying to draw attention to myself."

Never known for his brevity, Le Batard went on:"...I've been reckless these last few months, offending accidentally. I've been searching in my writing lately, taking risks, trying to find different gears ... and I fear now that I have done some serious damage to my credibility as a columnist.

"Sometimes painfully, sometimes publicly, I grow at this newspaper. The fact that some of the people Irespect most -- my colleagues -- think I've brought shame upon it hurts me more than you know."

Clifton acknowledges that the piece (which he characterizes as "bad -- sort of stupid") might have some negative impact on the paper. "To the extent that people who are well-known and well-identified with the Herald generate an opinion, negative or positive, based on what they do outside the the Herald, that's an issue, there's no getting away from it," comments the editor, adding that the ruckus will probably prompt a clarification of newspaper policy pertaining to staffers' outside activities. "It won't be chapter and verse," he says, and points out that Le Batard didn't violate any rules at the paper by taking the freelance assignment. "It will be more in the nature of guidance, especially for people in high-visibility positions in the Herald."

Le Batard's misstep, Clifton recalls telling those who attended the forum, is "part of the maturation process of a superb columnist." Adds the editor: "Nobody ever leads an error-free life. The problem comes if you don't learn anything from your mistakes."

As his detractors pointed out in their intraoffice condemnation, Le Batard has always enjoyed the stalwart support of his superiors. Doubtless, if Tananarive Due and Ana Veciana-Suarez had as staunch a backer as Le Batard has in Doug Clifton, they'd be best sellers. Amid the hue and cry regarding the ill-fated Knicks column, Clifton penned a public apology in the Herald and the New York Daily News, conceding that although the column "stepped over the ill-defined line of decorum a newspaper should never transgress," he shouldered all the blame. After the earlier Johnny Rockets brouhaha, Clifton had written a Herald column explaining that not only did he feel that Le Batard's alleged offense wasn't sufficiently newsworthy to merit Herald coverage, but that he also personally believed Le Batard's claim of innocence. "Herald sports columnist Dan Le Batard is the kind of nice young man you'd like to see your daughter come home with someday," the editor effused.

Would he still recommend Le Batard as the kind of guy parents would be pleased to see dating their daughter?

Clifton chuckles uncomfortably at the question. "No."

Staff writer Jim DeFede contributed to this story.

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