He Got Blame

Bleeped words and dropped balls mark the media frenzy around the suspension of Dan Issel.

On December 11, the night Denver Nuggets coach Dan Issel was captured on Channel 9 videotape yelling, "Go drink another beer, you Mexican piece of shit" at Bobby Bowman, a Hispanic ticket holder, the team had passed out thousands of Dan Issel bobblehead dolls that proved to be perfect props for sports anchors reporting the story. The next morning, for instance, Channel 9's Drew Soicher asked his Plastic Dan, "Should you have said that?" and the bobblehead wisely shook its head. "Was it a big mistake?" Soicher wondered, and the bobblehead nodded.

Had the coach responded to Bowman's shout of "Issel sucks!" in the same quiet way, he would never have been whacked with a four-game suspension sans pay, nor would he be the target of ire from a parade of Hispanic leaders and community activists stunned that the Nuggets didn't cut off his bobblehead and hand it to him. Many fans, too, were dumbfounded that Issel wasn't canned, and not just because the beverage offer he made Bowman was patently offensive. After all, the Nuggets were in the midst of another humiliating losing streak (the December 11 loss to the Charlotte Hornets was its ninth in ten games), and the team's best healthy player, Nick Van Exel, had recently gone public with his demand to be traded -- essentially a vote of no confidence in Issel, who'd signed him in the first place. What's more, this was hardly the only recent example of Issel's legendary temper getting the best of him. In early November, while being ejected from a game against the Sacramento Kings, Issel grabbed official Joe Forte -- a big no-no in the NBA.

Van Exel, of course, has his own history of on-court volatility, having shoved a referee during a game when he was a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Hence another irony of the videotape: In it, Van Exel can be seen trying to pull an angry Issel into the tunnel leading to the locker room, but the coach shakes him off and launches into his ill-advised tirade anyway. For future reference, Dan: If Nick Van Exel is more in control than you are, you know you're in trouble.

As it turns out, Van Exel was the reason Issel's outburst was captured for posterity. The Charlotte contest was Van Exel's first in Denver since his trade demand, and Channel 9 news director Patti Dennis confirms that station photographer Brian Willie was trailing him, not Issel. "Van Exel was the story," she says. By being in the right place at the right time (although not from Issel's perspective), Willie provided Channel 9 with a legitimate scoop. But when broadcasting the clip, the station censored both "shit," which isn't surprising, and "Mexican," which is -- so much so that viewers and media representatives were confused for days about what, exactly, Issel had said.

First reports in the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post quoted Issel as hollering, "Go drink another beer, you (expletive) Mexican piece of (expletive)" under the apparent assumption that some really gnarly profanity must have followed the word "you," because there was no reason to bleep "Mexican." But a closer viewing of the clip reveals that no other adjective popped out, naughty or otherwise. The News acknowledged as much on December 14 with a sports-section item headlined "Clarifying Issel's Statement," but the Post's Mark Kiszla again referenced the phantom obscenity in his column the same day, as did Chuck Green, who is to fact-checking what the Taliban is to American boosterism.

What were Channel 9's reasons for aurally obliterating "Mexican"? News director Dennis points out that a judgment about how to present the story had to be reached quickly, since Willie delivered the videotape to the station at just past 10 p.m., only twenty minutes or so before it was to air. During that period of debate, Dennis maintains, it was decided that "Mexican" as Issel spewed it, was "a racial slur -- and we're very careful with racial slurs. So we tried to find a way to convey exactly what was said without inciting anyone or being insensitive, and without airing inflammatory comments. We did the same thing during the O.J. Simpson trial: We tried not to use the audio of racial remarks because they are so inflammatory. We've done it on many stories, and it seemed appropriate for this one."

Nonetheless, Dennis acknowledges that the intro to the piece on December 11, in which the word "Mexican" wasn't used, came across as somewhat vague, leaving a percentage of viewers hazy about what, precisely, Issel had said -- "so by Wednesday morning, we were describing it as 'a racial slur against a Mexican-American.' To us, that was a better way to convey the information for an adult audience to understand."

Things weren't nearly so muddled in the News, which ran a story on Issel's statement on December 12 in which "Mexican" appeared in black and white. But the report about the game in the Post made no mention of the videotape at all -- an omission that's all the more baffling since the Post and Channel 9 have a longstanding agreement to cooperate editorially. No wonder Post sports editor Kevin Dale was so frustrated by the results.

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