By Dan Carson
Yellow card, Davis Vanguard!
Let’s play “fill in the blanks.” Should the following statement be considered appropriate under The Vanguard’s commenting policies and guidelines?
“Our budget problems are a reflection of a much broader problem – a sense of entitlement by welfare recipients, feeling they are entitled to certain treatment and to be given certain things, such as regular and substantial benefit increases.”
Or, how about this one? “Our unfair tax system is a reflection of a much broader problem – a sense of entitlement by business owners, feeling they are entitled to certain treatment and to be given certain things, such as tax breaks and advantages over competing firms.”
Both comments, in my view, are problematic. Demonizing groups of people by painting them with a broad brush and blaming “them” for our problems is simplistic and unfair and usually unfounded.
Fortunately, The Davis Vanguard has well-considered policies against this. Its Comment Policy posted on the website in August states, “Pejorative references to any general class of people are strongly discouraged…. They contribute to a negative tone and strongly suggest disrespect for the views of others. In some cases, general insults oversimplify the positions of others, which is detrimental to informed and respectful debate.” Among the specific examples cited in The Vanguard policy of “general insults” that are to be discouraged is referring to someone as being part of an “entitled population.”
But take a look at this statement that appeared in a November 23 Vanguard commentary on the Davis High soccer incident titled, “Is Soccer Incident an Embodiment of a Larger Problem?” In that piece about a November 15 incident, a confrontation between soccer players and a referee over a disputed late-game call was “a reflection of a much broader problem – a sense of entitlement by the students and the parents, feeling they are entitled to certain treatment and to be given certain things, whether it be starting positions or what not.”
The Vanguard asserted that “the attitude by the parents will bleed onto the field into the conduct of the students” and claimed that “this actually is a reflection of a broader problem in this school district. Over the last few months, one of the school board candidates expressed concern about the elitism that pervades this community. There are apparently chants that go something along the lines of: ‘that’s alright, that’s okay, you’ll be pumping our gas someday.’ “
The indictment in The Vanguard gets even more sweeping. In The Vanguard’s view, in this fight against elitism and entitlement, “we need to go further than just our student-athletes, we need to take it to the student population itself, the parents, and the community at large.”
Wow, it’s pretty hard to tar a broader group of people with a broader brush than that. However, The Vanguard cited no direct evidence that the antics on the field at the soccer championship game had anything to do with a sense of entitlement or elitism by the kids, the parents, the coaches, or anyone else. The main justification stated in the piece for his comments seems to relate to an ill-fated episode in which a former school board member meddled with her daughter’s volleyball team.
The author said he talked to unspecified “parents” for his latest piece, but later acknowledged that he deliberately chose not to talk to anyone currently connected with the Davis High soccer program – kids, parents, or coaches. This is at odds with the Vanguard Guiding Principles, most recently published last August 31. They promise that The Vanguard will achieve fairness in its coverage “to accurately reflect the competing positions, make reasonable efforts to gather responses to those who are the subjects of criticism, unfavorable allegations, or other negative assertions in our stories.” The author broke this promise.
Let me give you my response to the charges, since the author failed to provide any. My son is a member of the varsity soccer team. He was not on the field and not involved in the episode that led to discipline and probation being meted out to participants. In the course of the past season, I drove every carpool, attended every game, and got to meet and chat with a lot of the kids and their parents and the coaches. We got to know them fairly well.
These are normal 17- and 18-year-old boys, not saints. But in my many contacts with them, I saw little evidence of the elitism or entitlement that the author is attributing to them. What I saw was a great group of kids and families who came from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds with a terrific work ethic who went out of their way to help each other, again and again. For example, the goalkeeper involved in the fracas with the referee in that last game is a terrific kid who went out of his way to share game time with his backups and to cheer on one of them at a club team match. He lost his temper for a moment and made a stupid mistake for which punishment is appropriate for him and some teammates. But he and his family and teammates don’t fit the stereotype that The Vanguard has carelessly pinned on him and so many, many others without the slightest effort at real journalistic inquiry.
I never saw anyone on the team taunt others about other people pumping their gas someday, as the author implied such “elitists” are doing. Instead, I every member of the team pile together in joy when they pulled off a huge upset in the semifinal. I saw a key midfielder struggle heroically in obvious pain to get back on the field after an injury because his team needed his help. I saw a parent pull a star player from the roster for a few games because he was neglecting his studies, with the support of the coaches, because his education was his priority. I saw the head coach yank a player from a game for bad sportsmanship in excessively celebrating a goal. I eavesdropped on carpool conversations on how the kids handled the stresses that come with juggling practices or games five days a week, heavy academic schedules, and a social life, and came away very impressed by these kids and their families. I don’t think “elitists” act in these ways.
It was commendable that the Davis Vanguard stimulated an online public discussion about the soccer altercation and its aftermath. Was the punishment too much or too little? How can we avoid such incidents in the future and foster good sportsmanship? A number of Vanguard commenters weighed in on these important questions with valuable and enlightening points.
What caused the blow-up on November 15? As the parent of three soccer-maniacal sons, I can tell you that teenagers have short fuses that can sometimes overwhelm them in emotional situations. All of their hopes for a championship had just been yanked from them. What a few of them did that night was unquestionably wrong, but completely understandable to anyone who has parented kids of that age group.
I think The Vanguard was way over the line when it portrayed the incident as the “embodiment of a larger problem” of “elitism” and “entitlement” in the soccer team, Davis athletics, and the Davis community as a whole. Justifying these crude bromides, the author told me by email, “I think the Vanguard was in part create(d) to expose the dark underbelly of Davis and this column was in line with that general concern.” Based on what I have seen, and experienced firsthand, I don’t think Davis High athletics or its soccer family are the “dark underbelly of Davis.” I think, quite to the contrary, that they are a huge positive for the kids and this community.
I hope The Vanguard will do some soul-searching and reaffirm that it will abide by the same policies that it is encouraging for its commenters. It should shy away from the ugly stereotyping of children. Next time, I hope the author will commit to talk to the parties he plans on accusing before issuing sweeping indictments. As I stressed to him, making an effort to understand their point of view, and acknowledging in your piece the existence of views contrary to yours, would only have strengthened the commentary and The Vanguard’s reputation as a fair and thoughtful commenter on an important civic issue. A “yellow card” or caution is warranted here in my view.
Dan Carson was invited by The Vanguard to offer occasional commentary on how well various media outlets and the Vanguard itself adhere to professional journalism standards. Carson was graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in journalism and worked as a reporter for the San Diego Union for 15 years, including a decade as the paper’s Capitol bureau chief. He also contributed to California’s now-defunct journalism review magazine, called “feed/back,” for many years.