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No easy answers for prep sports reporter

BY DAVID BUCKNER

As a high school sports reporter, stirring controversy wasn't in the job description for the Star Tribune's David La Vaque. However, the decision he was faced with while covering the 08-09 prep hockey season had the potential to raise a few brows.

On a typical day in January, La Vaque arrived in the newsroom to check the sports message board as usual. A post about one of Minnesota's biggest boys' hockey powers, The Hill Murray Pioneers, caught his attention. Four prominent players were suspended for the remainder of the season, and not as a result of Minnesota State High School League violations.

Any news about the defending 2A state champ Pioneers was probably worth a phone call, and this story needed an explanation. La Vaque had worked with head coach Bill Lechner in the past and didn't hesitate to get in touch with him about the suspensions.

"This just had a feel that there was something more to it," said La Vaque. "The minute he answered the telephone I could tell that something big had happened."

Lechner would not identify the players or explain why they were dismissed. He only said that they would remain students at the school.

Reporting the story was a must, so La Vaque continued to follow up with people close to the team.

"I confirmed, off the record, the names of the players with two dads," said La Vaque.

The information was consistent with the names listed on the message board. La Vaque now had to decide on identifying the players in the story. He said that decisions like this are different from news you see about professional and collegiate athletes.

"Sometimes you're dealing with a 17-year-old," said La Vaque. "You can be writing about a senior in high school, but a lot of times they're still a minor."

Still, the decision wasn't one of legal concerns. Printing the names of suspended players is legal, even if the players are minors. The Republican Eagle, a community paper in Red Wing, Minn. has a long standing policy to print suspensions. Past editor Jim Pumarlo explained the Eagle's stance in a Jan. 1991 column.

"Missing players can affect a team's performance," the column read. "That's the primary reason we report them. It's part of the game story. If a player is injured, it's reported. If someone is out for other reasons, that ought to be told, too."

The column went on to explain that sports coverage is a major interest of the community, and therefore every aspect must be covered. Along those lines, high school suspensions are often the result of drug and alcohol abuse. The Eagle again stated that this is a matter that concerns the community at large since there is so much time and effort spent on combating these problems.

Pumarlo also wrote that coaches, "can use the suspensions in to work positively with youths, and make them better for it."

Perhaps the most compelling argument in Pumarlo's article was the last three words: "It's the truth."

La Vaque's dilemma was a question of ethics. At first, he took an approach similar to that of the Republican Eagle. He identified the four players in his original story with the reasoning of reporting the facts. He passed the story on to his editor for review. The final decision was made for him. The players would not be named.

La Vaque asked why his original story needed to be changed. Why not run the names?
"My editor said that the players were off the team, and it was over," said La Vaque. "You have to ask the question, 'Does the community at large benefit from knowing names?'" The editor's decision was that it didn't.

La Vaque's final story on Jan. 10 was a 150-word news brief. Only the information provided by Lechner was reported. An excerpt of the first two paragraphs of the article giving the bulk of the story is as follows:

"Four prominent players on the defending Class 2A state champion Hill-Murray boys' hockey team were kicked off the team for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Bill Lechner, the school's activities director and boys' hockey coach, confirmed that four players are off the team but would not give their names or any details about the rules violation."

The Star Tribune's competitor, The Pioneer Press, had a different idea as to how the story should be reported. Six days after LaVaque's story, the Pioneer Press ran a 500 word article about the Hill Murray team. It focused on the team moving forward with new leaders. However, in the seventh paragraph, the players were identified as follows:

"Lechner and school administrators maintained their stance Thursday on not identifying the players or the infraction that led to the dismissals, which includes the playoffs and the Class AA state tournament -- if the Pioneers make it that far.

Based on scoring summaries from Hill-Murray's previous two games, forwards Nick Widing, Paul Prescott and Isaac Kohls, and defenseman Alex Kelly -- all seniors -- have not played since the Pioneers' 5-2 loss to St. Thomas Academy on Jan. 8. The next day, Lechner informed the dismissed players of their punishment."

La Vaque was content with his editor's decision not to print the players' names. For this particular story, he agreed that there wasn't much to gain by knowing names. However, he said that some people expect prep athletes to only be shown in a positive light.

"Frankly, I don't know how I feel about that because we spend a lot of time building them up."

Patrick Johnson is a sports reporter for the South Washington County Bulletin in Cottage Grove. He agrees with La Vaque that a lot of high school sports coverage is positive. Johnson believes that the context of high school sports is different from most other sports coverage.

"At the community level, we kind of have an obligation not to call out the kids and not be too hard on them," said Johnson. "However, I think we do have an obligation to report what's happening, the facts."

Phil Kuemmel is the activities director at Park High School in Cottage Grove. He agrees that the facts need to be reported, but it's good for the community to have a positive focus.

"To me these are high school kids," said Kuemmel. "The local paper, I feel, should be supportive. There are a lot of good things that come out of our sports programs and the paper should do the best they can to report that."

Kuemmel said that naming suspended players is unnecessary because people will still know about it. Printing the names is like rubbing salt in the wound.

"The things (the athletes) do are doing on the field are very public," said Kuemmel. "All anyone has to do is go to a game and see that the top four players aren't playing and they'll hear about why."