- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2001

The First Amendment took a beating at Portland's Rose Garden the other day. As the Trail Blazers were being swept by the Lakers in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, a 34-year-old stepmom was ejected from the arena for failing to surrender a sign the team considered "objectionable or not in good taste."

And what did this awful sign, which was directed at the Blazers' general manager, say?

"Trade [Bob] Whitsitt."

That's all, just "Trade Whitsitt." Not "String Whitsitt Up By His Thumbs." Not "Hey, Bob, I Know Where You Live." Not "The GM Is A Half-Whit[sitt]." Simply "Trade Whitsitt." Signs don't get much tamer than that.

"I wasn't rowdy," Katherine Topaz told the local newspaper, the Oregonian. "I wasn't even yelling."

But that wasn't the issue. The issue was that she had dared to express an opposing point of view. For that, the Trail Blazers trampled all over her civil liberties in a building that was partially funded by the public, I might add and had her escorted out.

Of course, it could have been worse. They could have made her stay and watch the rest of the game, which ended with Portland on the short end of a 99-86 score.

The Blazers' subsequent offer to refund her ticket money "An apology it was not," she said hardly placated her. Nor should it have. This kind of hypersensitivity to criticism in professional sports simply can't be tolerated. Teams, it seems, want to have it both ways. They want a rabid fan base that will pay ever-escalating ticket prices win or lose, but they want those fans to turn off their emotions when the club disappoints. Sorry, it can't be done.

At least the Philadelphia Eagles understand. Three years ago, when the 0-5 Eagles faced the 0-5 Redskins at Veterans Stadium, one of their season ticket-holders a guy who's famous for his biting banners came up with this gem: "May The Worst Team Lose." Did the Eagles sick the Sign Police on him? Absolutely not. Hey, it was a funny banner and besides, it's one of the prices of doing business in the sports world.

An increasing number of teams, though, don't look at it at that way. As wallets grow thicker in sports, skin appears to be getting thinner. Cheers are about the only sound the Whitsitts of the world want to hear these days. And PA systems, which used to keep you apprised of the game, are now employed to extort as many huzzahs from the crowd as possible.

This attitude is even beginning to affect the media. Consider what happened in San Diego the week before the NFL Draft. Michael Vick was in town to meet with coaches and team officials, but the Chargers refused to make him available to reporters (as is their right). Here's the capper, though: A story on Vick's visit soon appeared on the club's Web site, with quotes from Vick himself.

The Chargers' PR director said it was a mixup and wouldn't be repeated. But frankly, I expect it to be repeated over and over again if not in San Diego, then someplace else. Teams are trying to develop their Web sites as sources of revenue, and there's nothing like a little exclusivity to increase the number of hits your site gets.

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see teams through their Web sites attempt to compete with newspapers, television and radio stations as a source of information. This would enable them to present their side of things directly to the fan without the inconvenience of differing viewpoints.

As you may be aware, The Washington Times waged a nasty battle with the Redskins last season over press box seating. The club said it had to cut back the number of seats the Times got from six to two because the new press box was smaller. But anyone with half a brain knew the real reason was that the Times was writing stuff the Redskins didn't like. The Times just wasn't on the team.

When the Redskins signed Deion Sanders, we didn't say, "Let's hold a ticker-tape parade," as other news outlets did. Instead, we said, "We've already seen the best of Deion Sanders. It's just a question of how much he has left. Dan Snyder is paying a lot of money to find out $8 million up front, $12 million over the first two years of the contract. Too much."

When the Redskins traded four picks, including two No. 1s, for the third pick in the 2000 draft, we didn't call it a master stroke, as other news outlets did. Instead, we presented evidence that "there isn't a vast difference [historically] between having the third pick and the 12th and 24th picks" if your aim is to select a Pro Bowler. We also questioned the wisdom of adding another huge contract to any already bulging payroll. "It's great that Snyder wants to seize the day," we wrote, "but you've got to show some restraint otherwise you'll be throwing bodies overboard in a few years."

I could go on, but you get the point: More and more, teams seem to want to suppress criticism no matter how reasoned it may be. But by doing so, they risk a greater danger. Because the Trail Blazers needlessly hassled one of their fans, millions more people know about the "Trade Whitsitt" sign now. (Good. The Blazers deserve it.)

As for team Web sites, they may turn out to be popular with some fans those, that is, who like to take their "news" with two lumps of sugar. But there are plenty of others, fortunately the Katherine Topaz types who prefer to take it straight.


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