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Eye of the Beholder

Two CU groups feel burned by a fiery sports column.

This behavior was tolerated, Krieger argues, because Bieniemy served as CU's "'gateway to the ghetto,' in the pragmatic language of the recruiting game." In other words, Bieniemy identified with, and appealed to, hard-guzzling, party-hearty, Boyz N the Hood-type characters that CU wanted to attract by any means necessary. But he felt no kinship with Houston, a teetotaler who wore ties and "'acted white' by relentlessly pursuing community service." This last contention especially nettles Black Student Alliance president Kite. "When did community service become white?" she asks.

Krieger didn't try to answer this question in his column, although he presents several other suppositions. He writes that if Houston "were a drinker, he would have fit in better. If he were a pimp, he would have fit in better. If he just shut up about Denver kids getting computers and going to college, he would have fit in better. If he were a thug or a moron, he would have fit in better in the CU football program."

The paragraphs above are chock-a-block with images that make Branch's blood boil. To him, the "gateway to the ghetto" phrase implies that every African-American athlete at CU "comes from impoverished, single-parent-family, inner-city, poorly educated, violent backgrounds. And that's certainly not true. There are some athletes that come from inner-city neighborhoods, no question. But to characterize that as the only type of people Eric Bieniemy was hired to recruit, as if he didn't have any capability to recruit anyone other than inner-city black athletes, is offensive."

Branch, a 1966 CU grad whose son attends the university but isn't involved in intercollegiate sports, also believes that painting "CU athletes in general, and African-American athletes in particular -- except for Marcus Houston -- as pimps, thugs, drinkers and morons is beyond the pale." The line about "black-on-black culture conflict" strikes him as inappropriate, too, since "no one would ever say the perceived differences between Coach Barnett and Craig Ochs" -- an acclaimed white quarterback who abandoned CU months ahead of Houston -- "was a 'white-on-white culture conflict.' But because of his perception of the differences between Marcus Houston and Eric Bieniemy, he thinks saying 'black-on-black culture conflict' is fine."

Kite elaborates on Branch's theme. "[Krieger] made it into the Good Negro versus the Bad Negro. And we really don't need to go back to those days."

To Krieger, who was hired at the Rocky in 1981 and covered the Broncos and Denver Nuggets as a beat reporter before being named a columnist in 2000, this analysis misses the entire thrust of his article. "It wasn't intended as an indictment of black culture, but the athletic culture at CU," he says. "It's actually making a case on behalf of an African-American student athlete, which is why the interpretation that it's an indictment of all African-American student athletes strikes me as a little odd. The column talks about a whole slew of occurrences in the Gary Barnett era: arrests, police incidents, all kinds of things, some of which have involved black players, some of which involved white players. And I guess that's where the disconnect is. Some people take what I wrote about the conflict between Houston and Bieniemy and assume that it's the subject of every reference for the rest of the column, which it is not."

As for the allegation about racial code words, Krieger pleads innocent. He chose "pimp" as a reference to the 2001 recruiting party: "I believe that's the correct use of the term," he says. Likewise, he doesn't see "thug," "moron" or "drinker" as applying only to African-Americans, since they can be used to describe individuals of all races. And "gateway to the ghetto"? According to Krieger, "There is no question that, in the big-picture world of college football, prominent white coaches require the help of black assistants with a background in the inner city to relate to inner-city recruits. That is a fact, and if people object to that being pointed out because it's politically incorrect, I don't know what to do about it -- because my job is to try and tell the truth about what's happening."

Such explanations don't convince Kite -- "As people of color who've dealt with racism and classism, it's easy for us to see through these things," she says -- and Krieger acknowledges that many African-American readers have communicated similar thoughts. But the responses he's received haven't been monochromatic. "The complaints have come mainly from two viewpoints, which are, it seems to me, mutually exclusive. One says I'm laying everything on Gary Barnett and trying to ruin the CU football program, and it raises no racial implications at all. And the other one is an entirely racial issue, in that it sees the column as purely an indictment of black football players." He adds, "Hearing both of these completely different criticisms of the same column makes me feel like I'm walking around in a George Orwell novel."

Fortunately, none of those attending the February 6 meeting at the Rocky describe it as remotely Orwellian. Managing editor Goeken thinks everyone came away from the approximately ninety-minute-long session "with a better understanding of each other, which was the goal, as it always is when we meet with readers. And we all agreed that race is an issue that should be discussed, not ignored or shied away from." To that end, Goeken says the original Branch-Kite letter will be printed shortly.

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