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Is a Post reporter offsides when it comes to the people he covers?

Denver Post sportswriter Adam Schefter is among this town's most prominent Denver Broncos reporters/commentators. In addition to getting plenty of inches in the Post's sports section during pigskin season, Schefter appears regularly on KOA and is a permanent part of KUSA-TV/ Channel 9's team. But while such extracurricular gigs have raised his profile, another pair of jobs have raised something else: ethical questions.

Specifically, Schefter co-authored last year's TD: Dreams in Motion (HarperCollins) with all-pro running back Terrell Davis, as well as the brand-new Think Like a Champion: Building Success One Victory at a Time (HarperBusiness) with head coach Mike Shanahan -- meaning that he's been in business with two people he covers as part of his beat. Schefter blasts suggestions that these deals compromise him as a journalist, saying, "I challenge anyone to show me a single incident when I have not been objective." His higher-ups at the Post must feel the same way: They ran a large excerpt from Champion in the paper's September 12 edition, teasing it on the front page. But even if Schefter's hard-nosed approach hasn't been softened by publishing contracts, the situation still smells like the sort of conflict that's all too typical in today's media landscape.

It's possible to argue that sports reporting shouldn't be scrutinized as closely as news coverage because it operates in a gray area between journalism and entertainment. An example of this phenomenon is ESPN, where athletes eagerly appear in comical promos pimping a network that's ostensibly dedicated to airing not just the good about sports, but the bad and the ugly as well. But in Denver, sports is news, as recent events have proven beyond doubt.

Mike Shanahan's Think Like a Champion.
Mike Shanahan's Think Like a Champion.
Rah rah: Mike Shanahan's Champion co-author Adam Schefter, pictured as a Broncos cheerleader on the Dennis Britton Go Home! Page.
Rah rah: Mike Shanahan's Champion co-author Adam Schefter, pictured as a Broncos cheerleader on the Dennis Britton Go Home! Page.

What Rocky Mountain News sportswriter Mike Littwin described in a September 5 column as "the strangest week in Denver sports history" got off to a fast start when, on August 30, Shanahan announced that designated starting quarterback Bubby Brister was being demoted in favor of second-year pro Brian Griese -- an action that received the kind of play usually reserved for papal visits. That was followed on September 1 by a news conference in which Brister took several well-aimed shots at Shanahan. Again, the media sent out its rabid response force, with most local newscasts leading with footage of the snit.

Around the same time, Colorado Rockies manager Jim Leyland announced that he was going to retire at season's end rather than fulfill the last two years of his contract, a decision that elicited more blanket coverage. And finally, the tear-gas clouds that enveloped Mile High Stadium after the September 4 clash between the CU Buffaloes and the CSU Rams instantly became the single biggest news event of late summer. The major issues that arose from the altercation weren't football-related, but they came up because thousands of passionate, well-lubricated sports lovers had been drawn together by a big game.

Whether any of these stories other than the last one should have elbowed their way ahead of every other bit of news in the state is debatable -- but in a town where sports personalities constitute the only real celebrities, it makes perfect sense. And it doesn't end there. Radio stations eagerly pay players to call up and chat once a week, TV outlets take the same tack, and newspapers give vanity columns to sports stars while continuing to report on them.

Considering this amoral landscape, Schefter's activities wouldn't seem likely to arouse much criticism -- but they've managed to stir some up anyway. The "Dennis Britton Go Home! Page," a Web site assembled a year or so back by disgruntled former Post staffers, mainly devoted itself to denigrating Britton, the just-sacked editor of the Post. (The site, at http://members.aol.com/empirvoic/dennispage.html, was reportedly "chilled" on September 15 "out of respect for the dead.") But the biggest graphic on the main page was a photograph of Schefter's face superimposed on a cheerleader. The copy that accompanied this image attacked Schefter for writing an article for Dream Season, a magazine about the Broncos' 1997-'98 run to the Super Bowl that was published by the team itself. To make matters worse, the polemic went on, the Post purchased an ad touting Schefter in the magazine even as Britton was continuing to preach about "high-minded principles of journalism."

Along with yours truly, Schefter attended an institution dedicated to this code of conduct -- Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago -- in 1989 and 1990. He stood out even then because of his extraordinary energy: While other students were struggling to keep up with coursework, Schefter was stringing like crazy for the Chicago Tribune. In one particular magazine-writing class, the professor ripped him mercilessly for loading up an assignment with standard sportswriting jargon, but Schefter wasn't cowed. He liked sportswriting jargon, and his genuine fondness for the form paid off; he quickly moved into a plum position with the Rocky Mountain News. According to Schefter, the Post came to him in late 1994 and offered a $10,000-a-year raise if he'd jump ship. "The Rocky countered with an extra $27 a week if I'd stay -- and I did," he goes on. "Then, eighteen months later, the Post came back with an even larger offer. So I called the Rocky and asked if they could come close to that. And they said, 'You just got a raise eighteen months ago.'"

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