Since the January 1 murder of Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams, the Rocky Mountain News's Dave Krieger has devoted around half of his regular sports columns to the slaying, the gang-related activity that presumably spawned it, and/or the responsibility of athletes and team executives to stand up against the scourge of violence in word, deed and cash. Judging by the e-mails and phone calls Krieger's received of late, the predominance of such themes and their increasing distance from the fields of play have split many of his readers into opposing camps.
"The people who are interested in this and want to see it pursued and believe it's very curious that it's not being pursued elsewhere still outnumber the others, but the others are growing," Krieger concedes. "The more I do this, the more people say, 'Why is this in the sports section? I don't go to the sports section for this.'"
Trouble is, such issues didn't receive much ink in local news pages prior to Williams's death, and since then, plenty of events that Krieger sees as related (and significant) continue to pass by with little notice from any journalist but him. For "Keeping Faith Tricky When Gangs a Factor," his February 8 offering, he focused upon the trial of Antonio Joshua, who was accused of killing Robert Rice, 36, in June 2004 under circumstances similar to those in which Williams lost his life: "an altercation in a bar, followed by a late-night car chase and a fatal shooting," he wrote. When the Joshua proceedings ended in a mistrial, Krieger was the only reporter present. But before revealing this development, as well as the prosecutors' promise to retry the case, he discovered no previous mentions of the matter in the Denver Post's archives -- and the Rocky's library contained only a single 88-word squib published the day after Rice died. In Krieger's view, there's no excuse for this lack of coverage.
"We had four paragraphs on a violent shooting death of a human in Denver, and probably hundreds or thousands of column inches on Darrent Williams," he says. "And that's not right."
This affinity for looking beyond the scoreboard comes naturally to Krieger. A native of New Haven, Connecticut, he spent the first portion of his career covering hard news at several New England-area papers before briefly leaving journalism to serve as the spokesman for Vermont senator Patrick Leahy. About a year later, he returned to the newsroom via a gig at the Cincinnati Enquirer that led to his 1981 hiring at the Rocky. At first he reported on city hall, but after covering the 1983 mayoral election won by Federico Peña, he shifted to sports. He worked a relatively brief stint on the Broncos beat and spent a dozen seasons eyeballing the Denver Nuggets before being named a columnist in 2000. In the intervening years, he's occasionally used sports-related incidents as jumping-off points for commentary on a broader range of concerns, even dabbling in press analysis after a Colorado woman leveled a since-dropped rape accusation against Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant in 2003. "I was critical of the media's role," he allows, "and I received criticism, counter-argument and debate -- something in that range -- from within the paper. But I'm an opinion columnist. I'm allowed to write my opinion, and that's what I do."
He's had no shortage of them since the Williams story broke. Rather than simply eulogize the cornerback in January 2's "Fame Can Bring Tragic Dark Side," he connected the episode to the wounding of two other high-profile athletes in the metro area: Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, a former Colorado State University star, was shot outside a Denver sports bar in August 2003, and Denver Nuggets backup Julius Hodge was hit by four bullets as he drove on Interstate 76 last April. Then, in "We Can All Learn From Williams' Death," Krieger's January 4 sequel, he noted the African-American heritage of all three gun victims and cast some of the blame for the ubiquitous nature of such misfortunes on "hip-hop culture" and its supposed glorification of cap-busting. This thesis infuriated a number of readers, who shared their comments on the Rocky's website. "This has to be one of the stupidest and most disrespectful articles I've ever read, not to mention ignorant," declared one person. But another post made an even more damning observation: "I notice that white people who are murdered get a lot more press than minority people (unless they are famous) -- so perhaps the press (you, Mr. Krieger) should pay more attention to all the violent acts that occur in Denver."
Krieger has done just that. On top of writing about Rice's murder, he's been extremely critical of Mayor John Hickenlooper for ballyhooing falling crime figures instead of putting the resources of his administration behind truly tackling the gang problem. Along the way, he's championed Open Door, a program run by Reverend Leon Kelly that tries to prevent youngsters from becoming entangled in the gang lifestyle, but which is beset by a perpetual shortage of funding. Kelly has known Krieger since the '80s, when Nuggets stars routinely helped community activists spread the anti-gang message (something that isn't happening to anywhere near that degree today), and he salutes the columnist for not hitting and running in the wake of Williams's passing.
"When this happened with Darrent, it was a media frenzy," Kelly says. "All the sports stations were talking about it, and people were calling me for interviews, telling me, 'Hey, Rev, we're not going to let this fall. We're gonna keep this going. We're gonna, we're gonna, we're gonna -- but then they did let it fall. So I've got to give Dave his props. He's the only one who's held true to his commitment."
Of course, the decision to keep this campaign going isn't Krieger's alone. "Long-term, if management isn't happy about what you're writing about, they'll let you know," he says. "But I haven't heard that yet."
And he won't -- at least for a while. Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple, who responds by e-mail, believes that "the intersection of gangs and pro sports is clearly a subject of interest and importance in light of the Darrent Williams shooting and the shootings of Julius Hodge and Joey Porter."
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As for Rocky sports editor Barry Forbis, he feels Krieger is currently striking a balance between pure sports columns and ones with looser connections to touchdowns and interceptions. "Dave always tells me, ŒLet me know when I'm beating a dead horse,' and I do, and I have," he says. "But I don't really think we're at that point yet. It's a big issue, and there's a lot to be talked about and unearthed, reporting-wise."
This process has been ramped up in the Rocky's news department. On February 10, the tabloid paired an article about the growing pressure on Mayor Hickenlooper to seriously address gang activity with a report about the Cole neighborhood murder of eighteen-year-old Gilbert Garcia; Kelly suspects that Garcia was an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of a retaliatory gang attack. The Rocky also published a laudatory profile of Garcia, who was the first member of his family to attend college.
Homicides like this are often overlooked by the dailies -- and, indeed, the Post has made no mention of what happened to Garcia. So does that mean Krieger's columns prompted his hard-news peers at the Rocky to do better in this respect? Not according to Temple, who writes that "Dave's columns have had no impact on the coverage in the Rocky." Whatever the case, Hickenlooper showed up at Garcia's funeral, where he met with Kelly -- an encounter that probably wouldn't have taken place if Krieger hadn't turned up the heat on the mayor.
The temperature's rising for Krieger, too, and the more readers object to his present passion, the warmer things are likely to get for him. "I've been asked by people in this area I've been covering, ŒHow long are they going to let you keep writing about this in the sports section?'" he says. "And I tell them, 'Quite honestly, I don't know.'" A sports columnist is risking the ire of readers by writing about gangs -- and criticizing local media for not adequately covering the topic.