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Easy Does It?

The unspoken rule is, Don't knock the jocks. But should TV analysts pull their punches when criticizing the performance of big-time college athletes?

In the world of college basketball commentary, where discouraging words are seldom heard and the principals are traditionally hailed for doing "a great job," ESPN's Doug Gottlieb violated the code on Jan. 25. During a halftime studio spot, Gottlieb called Wisconsin reserve forward Brian Butch the most overrated player in the Big Ten, citing the redshirt freshman's limited production (4.9 points per game) despite being named a Parade High School All-America with LeBron James two years ago. "There was a time when Brian Butch was the second coming," Gottlieb said. "He redshirts last year to gain strength, gain athleticism--and yet he's kind of a no-show this year."

Retribution was swift. ESPN's Dick Vitale condemned Gottlieb on the air, and two days later Badgers coach Bo Ryan issued a seven-paragraph press release. "To have a player individually called out in this manner is a sad commentary in this day in college athletics," Ryan wrote. A line between professionals and amateurs, he said, had been crossed.

It's nothing new for coaches to back their players publicly, but Ryan took the issue a step further, framing it as a debate on journalistic ethics. In an age of hysteria on talk radio and Internet message boards--not to mention mainstream newspapers, which have in recent months referred to Duke junior Shavlik Randolph as a "dud" and Michigan State's senior class as "losers"--the question is worth pondering: What is legitimate media criticism of college athletes?

The answer, as you might expect, depends on whom you ask. Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt--one of the few coaches to hold a journalism degree--says Gottlieb was completely out of line. "If you want to critique a young man's play in a particular game, that's fair. But to call someone the most overrated player in the Big Ten and not know what's going on in his academic and personal life is totally unfair," says Hewitt, who called an Atlanta radio station last season to protest criticism of Yellow Jackets center Luke Schenscher. "College athletes don't spend every waking moment preparing to play. A professional has all the time in the world to devote to his job, and that's where the difference is."

While Hewitt calls "total bull" the argument that Division I hoops is a preprofessional environment, one media ethics expert disagrees. "There is a direct relationship between stardom and the appropriateness of providing comment, and in Division I you have stars who get attention even though they're not paid salaries," says Kelly McBride, head of the ethics department at the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg school for professional journalists. "If Butch is one of the most highly rated Big Ten players, with that is going to come a certain amount of criticism. I don't think Ryan was out of line defending his player, but that doesn't mean Gottlieb was out of line saying he is overrated."

For his part, CBS's Billy Packer--one of a handful of unflinchingly candid analysts--maintains the debate should be less about college versus pro athletes and more about whether players should be viewed as saviors before they play a minute of college ball. "I've never been involved in hyping a player," Packer says. "I want to know: What's he doing in tonight's game?"

Fair enough, but as Gottlieb notes, Wisconsin hardly shied from promoting Butch when it beat out North Carolina, Kansas and Arizona for his signature two years ago. (While presenting Ryan with the Big Ten trophy in 2003, then Badgers AD Pat Richter referred to high school senior Butch when he said, "This is a dynasty for years to come.") "Every press release said this was the biggest-name kid ever to sign at Wisconsin," Gottlieb says. "So when he doesn't live up to that billing and I'm the one on TV saying that, there are facts to back it up."

Reasonable minds can disagree over whether the oft-injured Butch deserves more time before we judge his overall performance. (That happens to be this observer's opinion.) But we do know one thing: College basketball needs more analysts who dispense honest commentary instead of the butt-kissing that dominates the airwaves. As a former point guard at Notre Dame and Oklahoma State, Gottlieb knows the sting of criticism: ESPN the Magazine once named him "the worst shooter in college basketball." He went on to lead the nation in assists in 1998--99, and he still keeps that article posted on his wall. "I used it as motivation," he says. "Look, it's not like Brian Butch can't turn it around. If he becomes an All-America his senior year, he'll have what I said up on his wall. And isn't that the whole idea? That we all have opinions?"

College campuses, after all, are places where opinions are meant to be aired and debated. Let's hope ESPN keeps giving Gottlieb the chance to express his.

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