June 23, 2024

There is apparently a new class being offered at USC’s esteemed Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

It is being taught by football coach Lincoln Riley and new athletic director Jennifer Cohen.

It is a case study of how to stifle free speech by controlling the media with the sort of reckless vindictiveness regularly practiced in such enlightened enclaves as Moscow and Beijing.

Bullying 101.

The syllabus is simple. Target a smart, aggressive, rookie reporter in his first weeks on the beat and immediately punish him for media policy violations that amount to little more than protocol gaffes.

Suspend the reporter. Take his credential. Deny him all Trojans football access. Make a statement.

This is what happened last week when Riley and Cohen banned Luca Evans of the Southern California News Group for two weeks for violating some of USC’s media policies.

Yeah, this was a statement, all right. Actually, two statements.

Riley showed that for all his football genius, he can be an incredibly petty control freak who hasn’t yet adjusted to this big market’s culture of transparency and accountability.

Meanwhile, Cohen, in failing to prioritize the university’s overall mission ahead of her football coach’s insecurity, badly flunked her first test as USC’s athletic boss. It only furthered the belief that, yeah, sigh, she works for Riley and not the other way around.

Oops I think I just got myself suspended.

For years, led by legendary sports publicist Tim Tessalone, USC was the model of using the media as part of a student-athlete’s education. Interviews were encouraged, public speaking was inherently taught, and countless successful business careers were born.

There were questionable stories and controversial angles, sure, but any differences between the athletic department and the media were resolved in private conversations that ultimately made everybody smarter. The Trojans boasted arguably the most effective and mutually beneficial media environment in the country.

But Tessalone retired and Riley showed up from Oklahoma with the reputation for being a media nightmare. To his credit, and with encouragement from new football communications director Katie Ryan, Riley lightened up a bit after he arrived and the current culture isn’t as oppressive as feared.

But Riley still commands a somewhat tighter huddle, there’s always the subtle threat of sanctions, and even quarterback Caleb Williams was quite unbelievably allowed to harm his Heisman campaign by skipping a postgame press conference.

Now this, suspending a reporter, marginalizing the media in the country’s second-biggest media market, a huge step back, the Riley of old, a toothless Cohen, the Trojans football program once again falling into dysfunction and distraction.

Granted, dear reader, you probably don’t care a whit about any of this. The media is understandably the least of your concerns. As long as the Trojans win, right?

That’s all true until the team is losing and you want answers, or until the former athletic director suddenly quits and you want to know why, or until the next Trojans scandal occurs and you demand accountability. The history around here has shown that the media doesn’t matter until USC does something so dumb it matters.

Well, this is one of those times.

Full disclosure, Evans worked as a Los Angeles Times prep writer for a couple of years and left here with a sterling reputation for relentless effort and unquestioned ethics.

For whatever reason, probably because of an understandable youthful exuberance in his first weeks on the beat, he has rubbed USC the wrong way, and they have complained to him about the oddest things. For example, after a recent news conference involving USC president Carol Folt, he was pulled aside and told not to address her as “Carol” but rather “Dr. Folt.” (Sorry, your Majesty.)

Then there was the list of official complaints that led to the ban, as relayed by Ryan to SCNG editors.

The Trojans are upset that Evans asked questions after news conferences officially ended. News flash: As long as a source is within earshot, good reporters always be asking them questions. If the source doesn’t like it, just ignore the question or walk away.

They are upset that Evans used the phrase “garbage time” in a story. Seriously? Isn’t wasting everyone’s attention on something this petty is the definition of “garbage time?”

They are upset that Evans asked Riley a question related to a game plan. C’mon, Lincoln. Just don’t answer him.

They are upset that Evans contacted players’ parents without alerting USC first. Really? Every decent college reporter contacts players’ parents. They are a valuable source of perspective about their children and are often proud to talk about them. They are also adults. If they don’t want to chat, they can just hang up.

There were several other issues where Evans apparently skirted rules about contacting players and coaches outside of approved parameters, but, again, new kid hustling, just pull him aside and remind him of the policies, end of story.

Virtually every media member with a pulse has broken some of those rules, yet only the rookie gets suspended? So was this a message or a threat? It frankly feels like both.

The flash point for the suspension was actually a story Evans wrote last week about freshman running back Quinten Joyner, a kid who is uncomfortable doing interviews. The first few paragraphs focused on Joyner’s shyness and mannerisms related to that shyness. It also contained concerns that Joyner shared with a teammate off to the side of USC’s makeshift interview area.

Riley was upset that Evans reported on a conversation between Joyner and his teammate when they were not in front of the USC banner. He was also apparently upset with how the story began. Certainly, no school ever wants to put any of their players in a position to be embarrassed during an interview, especially a reticent kid who trusts the school to protect him in that environment.

But did Riley actually read the entire story? Immediately after the interview, Evans contacted Joyner’s father Quincy, who heard Evans’ account of the scene and laughed and said, “That sounds just like him … he’s still me and my wife’s baby.”

So the father was OK with it, but Riley and Cohen weren’t? They know more about Quinten Joyner than his parents? And to accuse Evans of violating media policies by reporting on Joyner’s conversation with a teammate because it happened during practice, well, practice was over and the field was open and it’s a gray area at best.

For a 3-0 team with national title hopes, this is all so distracting. For a coach trying to win his first championship to justify his reported $10 million salary, this is all so unnecessary.

Even media-scoundrel-turned-darling Chip Kelly has thoughts. When told of the crosstown suspension Wednesday morning after practice, the UCLA coach expressed surprise.

“You can do that?” he said.

To his credit, for several years Kelly has been pilloried by the local media, including this columnist, yet he has generally been accommodating and professional while never imposing any extraordinary restrictions. It’s almost like he doesn’t actually read the stories. Which maybe he doesn’t?

“Right now we try to preach about being the most prepared and the least distracted and following things like that, I think you’re going down a rabbit hole,” he said.

Thanks to Riley and Cohen, USC football is now firmly back in that familiar hole, two new faces dragging the seemingly repaired program back into the same troubled mess, two-bit bullies seeming more concerned with managing the media than winning a championship.

Riley was asked about it after practice earlier this week and he told reporters, “I don’t feel like we have too many rules, too many policies, but the ones we do have we take them serious because my first job … it’s protecting the players. That is first and foremost.”

He added, “I know the article in question was not accurate, there were multiple policies broken and felt like it was far enough that we needed to act.”

I reached out to Ryan with a request to speak to Cohen for her side of the story Wednesday and was told that the athletic director wasn’t giving interviews on this day.

As far as my impending suspension is concerned, I can only plead with Her Majesty to reconsider, maybe let me write about Trojans again during garbage time.

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