From the Press Box: Lip service and Hawkeye basketball

Opinion and Insight

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Opinion and Insight


Hot mics. Supposedly private conversations and racial sensibilities.

All have come into play this season for University of Iowa men’s basketball head coach Fran McCaffrey and the widely loved and respected “Voice of the Hawkeyes” play-by-play announcer Gary Dolphin.

Dolphin was the first to stub his professional toe after comments he made to color commentator Bobby Hansen in which he criticized one of more Iowa players after a 69-68 win over Pittsburgh in late November.

Whether the criticism was deserved or not had Hawkeye fans divided, but most of the outcry on social media felt Dolphin at least had the right to voice his opinion.

Athletic Director Gary Barta — who many Dolphin supporters believe would love to find an excuse to dismiss the long-time radio/TV announcer — wasted little time in suspending his play-by-play bedrock.

Dolphin was nailed again after seemingly innocent comments after a game against Maryland. Intending to praise Terrapin big man Bruno Fernando, Dolphin compared him to King Kong. His intention was, apparently, to describe Fernando’s ferocious style of play and physical dominance in the paint.

Fernando is African-American, thus the eruption among those looking for any excuse to be racially offended. Would those screaming for Dolphin’s head have done so if he had referred to a white player as Kong? Had called Fernando Godzilla or King Ghidorah instead?

If I had read a transcript and Fernando’s name was redacted, or XXXXXX out, I would have automatically thought “Wow, how about the Iowa announcer praising this Maryland guy! The dude must have totally dominated inside.”

Instead, the brouhaha had Dolphin apologizing at a press conference Wednesday. He has been suspended by the thin-skinned Barta for the remainder of the basketball season, though it was announced he will return for football duties.

It needs to be said that white folks do not get a pass on this one. We do not get to say what is, and is not, offensive to our fellow humans who happen to be black. And blacks don’t get to say what is and is not offensive to whites, and men don’t get to say what is and isn’t offensive to women and so on.

I don’t believe Dolphin meant to insult Fernando (who is from Angola), but he did. That is what matters. A poor choice of words, for which he quickly apologized. The apology appeared honest and earnest, and Dolphin’s many friends among the black community rallied in support of him, though noting the words still stung.

A lesson for us all, this writer included. Another suspension for Dolphin would have been appropriate, but for the remainder of the season? I will leave that to others to debate, though my vote is that it is excessive, as Dolphin has no prior record of making such comments.

McCaffrey went off on game officials after No. 21 Iowa was blasted, 90-70, at Ohio State. He and assistant coach son both received technical fouls during the game, and afterward, in profanity-laced remarks McCaffrey thought were private, he ripped the referees.

An Ohio reporter overheard what was said, reported it and the salty language, and ‘presto!’ McCaffrey is suspended two games, fined $10,000 by the university, and reprimanded by the Big Ten.

This is understandable. A coach simply cannot be allowed to launch a scree against the officials, whether fans believe they deserved it or not.

I spent what, at times, felt like 75 years watching former Big Ten official Ed Hightower exhibit barely-concealed hostility toward the Fighting Illini while coddling Robert Montgomery Knight, and, in succession, Jud Heathcoate and Tom Izzo. In my humble opinion, of course.

Ripping the refs is, most fans feel, a sacred right. But coaches are called to behave differently. Sports writers, most especially when not writing an opinion piece, have the same obligation.

The Hawkeyes are currently 21-7. They are having one of their best seasons in recent years. It is a shame a couple of slips of the tongue have caused a level of distraction.

If nothing else, it has folks talking about Iowa men’s basketball, including many who otherwise ignore the program. Barta has to be hoping that, in the end, the lip service is a good thing.

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