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Why you should care if your favorite team bans a columnist

Fans find their seats before the start of the Real Salt Lake vs. New England Revolution Major League Soccer game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, July 16, 2016.
Fans find their seats before the start of the Real Salt Lake vs. New England Revolution Major League Soccer game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, July 16, 2016.
Weston Kenney, Deseret News

On Saturday night, Real Salt Lake officials refused to let Salt Lake Tribune columnist Gordon Monson cover the game against the New England Revolution.

It doesn’t matter if you hate Monson — or more accurately, his opinions. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of him.

It really doesn’t even matter if you don’t like Real Salt Lake — or any other sports team.

There is a very good reason that you should care, should oppose and, frankly, be alarmed when a person or group bans any specific reporter from covering them — an evolved society needs a free press.

History is replete with examples of what happens when those in power control the message. It is never good.

The job of an independent press is to hold those in power accountable. And while most people understand that reporters generally do things (attend meetings, read documents, ask questions) on behalf of the public, I do think there is a general misunderstanding of what a columnist’s job entails.

A beat writer covers the game — what happened, when and who did it. And what did the coach think? How did players respond?

A columnist comments on whatever moves them. It might be the game, a player, a series of plays, a decision by the coach, a move by the general manager, the behavior of fans.

While facts are the foundation of both a good daily story by a beat writer and a great column, someone like Monson is paid to give us more than a rehash of what happened.

A columnist’s writing is infused with his or her opinion, with suggestion, with provocation. Different columnists take different approaches. Sometimes it depends on the subject, but most of the time it depends on the columnist. It’s this type of journalism where a writer’s voice, a writer’s perspective matters most.

Real Salt Lake chief business officer Andy Carroll issued a statement on the decision to deny Monson a credential to cover the game Saturday night.

It said, among other things, the reason for denying Monson a credential is because he has a conflict of interest.

“The issue arises due to the conflicts of interest and personal agendas of one columnist — one who not only draws a paycheck from a competing professional team in the marketplace, but also hosts a daily radio show with a close relative of the former owner.”

What the crazy-contorted-reach-for-a-reason does that mean?

It means Monson wrote columns they didn’t like and they’re blaming it on his part-time job at 1280 The Zone. Monson co-hosts an afternoon talk radio show (“The Big Show”) with Spence Checketts, the son of the man who brought Real to Utah — Dave Checketts.

The radio station is owned by Larry H. Miller Communications. So RSL management would have us believe that Monson wrote a couple of columns questioning the way the team was being managed by new owner Dell Loy Hansen because the Jazz owners/management wanted him to tear down RSL so the Jazz would look, um, better managed?

It is so convoluted and ridiculous, I have trouble believing the statement was actually issued.

Look, the reality is pretty simple.

Columnists say stuff that rankles feathers. It might hurt your feelings. It could make you furious. It could make you cancel your subscription (a threat I will miss hearing when we go digital someday). Or it could mirror exactly how you feel.

Some will say this is a private business and as such the owners have every right to exclude people they don’t feel are “ethical enough” to cover their actions.

But sports teams are not private companies. Rio Tinto Stadium was touted as a “private-public partnership” in which private money met millions of tax dollars to not only build the stadium but improve the infrastructure around the stadium. This all makes it a much more lucrative deal for team owners, who are also beholden to Major League Soccer officials.

According to their own website, Rio Tinto was built with $45 million in public funds. The site also points out, Vivint Smart Home Arena received $45 million (soon to be more), Maverick Center used $57 million and Smith's Ballpark relied on $28 million in public funds for its stadium.

The bottom line, these teams belong, at least in part, to this community. And because they do, the public’s representatives have the right to attend the games.

And aside from the fact that most sports teams rely on tax breaks and other public financial support, I recommend being very wary of people touting “unfairness” as the reason for their exclusion.

Because while today's target is Monson, tomorrow it will be someone else who dares to ask a question that ownership doesn’t like.

We should care about this because this idea is more important than the games with which they are associated. A free and independent press is so fundamentally important to everything we do that erosion anywhere is an alarm that shouldn’t be ignored.

Other alarms have sounded outside sports, but I'm not sure we understand the warning. For example, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his campaign have revoked press credentials from at least seven news outlets for what he sees as “unfair coverage.” Are we comfortable with this? Who gets to decide what's "fair" and what's not?

The reality of a free press is that you may read things with which you disagree. You may hear things that disturb or anger you. You may see things that upset or shock you.

The goal for journalists, especially columnists, isn’t to reinforce what you already believe. It’s to cast a different light on an old problem, highlight a new issue or give context to controversy.

And there are much better solutions, honestly, much more American resolutions to dealing with opinions that you feel are unfair.

May I suggest a few?

Ignore the offending information.

Offer an opposing view, additional information or another perspective through the many options available to us in this modern, technology-saturated society.

Or, my personal favorite, appreciate the fact that you live in a country where free speech is so vital, so valued and so sacred that there is no end to the ways in which we will chronicle this beautiful, maddening human experience.


Twitter: adonsports