Update below: Longtime Denver Post sportswriter Terry Frei has been disappeared from the paper following a tweet in which he announced that he was "very uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the Indianapolis 500 during Memorial Day weekend." But while Frei's ouster is embarrassing, the incident could also prove beneficial to the Post's bottom line during a time of financial stress epitomized by its decision to move its newsroom out of Denver.
Frei is the second Denver Post sportswriter to leave the paper in three years as a result of impolitic tweets. In 2014, hockey scribe Adrian Dater was pink-slipped after a weird come-on to a reader, not to mention use of language such as "pussy" and "fuck off." In explaining what happened, Dater admitted to substance-abuse problems.
Although Frei spent thirty years with the Post (the reference to this stint in the online biography of his personal website has already been changed to the past tense), he was never the paper's most prominent sportswriter. Woody Paige overshadowed him prior to his departure from the paper last year, and since then, Mark Kiszla has gotten the lion's share of attention despite Frei's prolific side career as an author. His books include straightforward sports tales such as '77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age — but he's also made a specialty of tackling topics that touch on American history, military or otherwise, including Third Down and a War to Go; Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming; the novel Olympic Affair: Hitler's Siren and America's Hero; and his most recent tome, March 1939: Before the Madness.
His interest in World War II can be traced to the experiences of his late father, Jerry Frei, a onetime University of Oregon football coach who served as a fighter pilot during World War II; he flew more than sixty missions in the Pacific theater beginning when he was just twenty years old. We communicated with Frei about the topic back in 2007, after Rocky Mountain News sports columnist Dave Krieger took heat for using his sports column to discuss Denver gangs. At the time, Frei revealed that the Post had refused to publish a column about his dad because he'd concluded the piece with a call for "a universal draft, minus student deferments or any other loopholes, for young people into national service, whether military or otherwise. A draft of young people, including athletes playing in nationally ballyhooed college football games, musicians and prospective journalists." Had such a World War II-style call-up been in place during subsequent years, Frei argued, "our decisions about Vietnam and Iraq might have been different." The essay was eventually published by the Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard.
When asked if the Rocky was right to give Krieger leeway, Frei, whose career also included time with the Portland Oregonian, wrote via e-mail, "In Portland and in Denver, I've argued that a capable sports columnist should have the widest possible latitude in subject matter. I have the bruises to prove it, and I lost some of the battles.... This is not an issue of subject matter, per se, and I greatly resent any suggestion that sports columnists should stick to pounding the table about play-calling."
These comments echo in the wake of what happened over the weekend. After Japan's Takuma Sato won this year's Indy 500, Frei tweeted this: "Nothing specifically personal, but I am very uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the Indianapolis 500 during Memorial Day weekend."
Among those who immediately called out Frei was Gil Asakawa, a former staffer for the Post (and Westword). On Facebook, Asakawa wrote, "I worked at the Denver Post, I'm embarrassed to say. I wonder what my former colleague Terry Frei thought about my running the website that featured his sports coverage? Was he 'very uncomfortable' with me having power over his content? What's his logic for this now-deleted tweet? What does he feel about Italians, or French drivers, or Latino or African Americans behind the wheel? If his objection is because it's Memorial Day weekend, would he feel the same about a German (or Italian) driver winning the race? And does he have ANY IDEA about the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, which fought — and died — during WWII and remains to this day the most highly-decorated unit in the history of the United States military????? What was he thinking? I await the Post's explanation. I'll make sure the veterans and attendees of the Japanese American Veterans' Memorial Day Service tomorrow at the Nisei Veterans' Monument at Fairmount Cemetery know about this dumb statement. What a disgusting disappointment...."
Asakawa's point about drivers of other ethnicities at the Indy 500 is well taken. Italy, one of the three main Axis powers during World War II (along with Japan and Germany), has seen three of its drivers win the race over the years, including one during the post-WWII period: Mario Andretti, in 1969. If that bothered Frei, too, we've not been able to find any reference to it.
Whatever the case, the Post responded swiftly to Frei's comment, as described in a message shared under the names of publisher Mac Tully and editor Lee Ann Colacioppo. Their statement reads: "We apologize for the disrespectful and unacceptable tweet that was sent out by one of our reporters. Terry Frei is no longer an employee of The Denver Post. It's our policy not to comment further on personnel issues."
They added: "The tweet doesn't represent what we believe nor what we stand for. We hope you will accept our profound apologies."
For his part, Frei posted his own, wordier explanation for the tweet (which he deleted after the uproar). Here's how he put it:
I fouled up. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said what I said when I said it. I should have known better and I regret it. I in no way meant to represent my employer and I apologize to The Denver Post.
On Sunday, I was going down to Fort Logan National Cemetery to place flowers on the grave of and to salute my father, Jerry Frei, who spent the four-year gap between his sophomore and junior seasons at Wisconsin flying the F-5 unarmed version of the one-man P-38 fighter plane in the 26th Photo Squadron. (And I did make that visit.) He flew alone, or with a partner in a second plane, over Japanese targets in advance of the bombing runs. When Blake Olson of Channel 9 asked him about being unarmed, he laughed and said, "I had a pistol." He flew 67 missions, crossing the 300 combat hours threshold, and earned the World War II Air Medal three times. I have written much other material about American athletes in World War II. I researched and wrote quite graphically about the deaths of my father's teammates, Dave Schreiner and Bob Baumann, in the Battle of Okinawa. I have the picture wallet containing photos of his family and girlfriend that Schreiner was carrying when he was killed. That is part of my perspective.
I am sorry. I made a mistake, and I understand 72 years have passed since the end of World War II and I do regret people with whom I probably am very closely aligned with politically and philosophically have been so offended. To those people, I apologize. (In fact, the assumptions about my political and social leanings have been quite inaccurate.) I apologize to Takuma Sato. I made a stupid reference, during an emotional weekend, to one of the nations that we fought in World War II — and, in this case, the specific one my father fought against. Again, I will say I'm sorry, I know better, and I'm angry at myself because there was no constructive purpose in saying it and I should not have said it, especially because The Denver Post has been dragged into this.
We've reached out to Frei for additional comment. If and when he gets back to us, we'll update this post.
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Likewise, we've contacted Tully and Colacioppo about whether the Post will seek to hire a new sportswriter to replace Frei — a significant question in light of the paper's current economic situation. The paper has been phasing out columnists for years, dating back to the early 2000s. At that time, then-editor Greg Moore told us that a surplus of columnists "gives the paper a decided lack of urgency. An opinion is never urgent. When you have material in the paper where, if you saw it, great, and if you didn't, so what, that's a recipe for not having a compelling product. I want people focused on breaking news stories and not spending a day and a half or two and a half days to write a column — and I'm not even sure people are spending that much time doing it."
Columnists are also expensive — and money is a big reason that Paige decided to move on to the Colorado Springs Gazette last year. Frei no doubt had a sizable salary, too, and choosing not to replace him would result in considerable savings. Hiring someone younger and cheaper to fill the slot would, too.
When viewed from this perspective, Frei may have done the Post a favor, albeit by way of yet another humiliating Twitter episode at the paper.
Update: Late this afternoon, Denver Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo responded to an e-mail sent prior to the original publication of this article. My questions to her and publisher Mac Tully were: "Could you tell me if there are plans to add a new columnist to replace Frei? Also, are there any potential changes in social media policy that may be put in place in the wake of this incident?" Her reply: "It's a little early for me to answer all this, although we certainly intend to hire a hockey writer." She added that Frei's most recent job title at the Post was technically "reporter," although he served as a columnist for many years and his most recent stories about the Colorado Avalanche tend to feature headlines that begin with his name — typically an honor reserved for columnists. Nonetheless, we changed the word "columnist" to "sportswriter" in several places to clarify his position.