Iowa Men's Basketball

Gary Dolphin suspension: Words matter. Open minds matter, too.

Gary Dolphin controversy stirs emotions, but should also stir thought

(From left) Iowa Hawkeyes radio announcer, Gary Dolphin, University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld, and UI Athletics Director Gary Barta in Los Angeles at a Hawkeye Huddle on 12.30.15. (The Gazette)
(From left) Iowa Hawkeyes radio announcer, Gary Dolphin, University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld, and UI Athletics Director Gary Barta in Los Angeles at a Hawkeye Huddle on 12.30.15. (The Gazette)

In 1992, Iowa’s football team had a wide receiver named Danan Hughes who aspired to play both football and baseball professionally, and eventually did.

“That’s Danan,” Hawkeyes football coach Hayden Fry said at the time. “He thinks he is King Kong.”

I strongly hesitated to use that quote here because of fears someone, somewhere will label Fry as racially insensitive.

But if they do, they won’t have to wait long for dozens, nay, hundreds of former Fry players, colleagues and friends who are African Americans to call them fools and far worse. So will older folks in Texas who remember how Fry infuriated legions of bigots when, in 1965 as SMU’s coach, he was the first Southwest Conference coach to give a black football player an athletic scholarship.

Fry caught a lot of hate for that, even from some SMU supporters.

Also, Fry said this in 1990: “When you know you’re gonna be good, you don’t want to go out there and boast. That’ll make the guys think they’re King Kong and screw up.”

He was referring to all his players.

Fry often used the phrase “King Kong.” He liked to say it about smaller players who had no fear battling larger ones. I can’t find documentation online, but I’d bet he used it at some point about Tim Dwight.

So, is any or all of that relevant to Hawkeye Sports Properties — with the support of the University of Iowa’s athletic department — suspending play-by-play announcer Gary Dolphin for the rest of this men’s basketball season for saying Maryland player Bruno Fernando “was King Kong at the end of the game” on the air?

Yes. No. Maybe. ... I don’t know.

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And here we go. No matter what you say or write about this Dolphin matter, it will piss someone off.

Which I just did by using a word I have never before used in print other than in a quote from someone else. Some people won’t be the slightest bit offended by it. Others will. So I apologize. Or not. Whichever you want.

In seriousness, should I get annoyed with anyone who does take offense at it and call them oversensitive? Or should I try to have a mind that’s open enough to understand why they don’t like it and why I shouldn’t have done it?

I know someone named Rick. I’ve long called him “Slick Rick.” He’s always gotten a kick out of that, mainly because he is the total opposite of slick and is comfortable with that. Calling him “slick” is like calling a bald guy “Curly,” which I’ve also heard Fry do.

Maybe nine of every 10 Ricks would enjoy being called “Slick Rick.” But if you knew one of 10 cringed at it or found it flat-out insulting for whatever reason they had, you wouldn’t address every Rick you met with “Why hello there, Slick Rick.”

People who know Dolphin far better than myself would gladly and confidently swear under oath that he didn’t mean those two words anything other than praise for a player who was dominant when it mattered most against the Hawkeyes. As someone who has spent a lot of minutes on the radio and in podcasts, I know all too well how instantly choosing the words you mean to say is anything but foolproof.

But I also know I’m white, and don’t know how I’d feel about countless different words, phrases, and life itself were I not. I also know what you see when you Google a photo of King Kong.

As someone who has done far more offending than taking offense, I still don’t want anyone else telling me why I shouldn’t be offended by something I find offensive. Yes, that last sentence was so poorly written it may be offensive.

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A few weeks ago, I watched part of a “Tonight Show” from the early 1970s on some cable station. It was jarring to hear some of the lines casually tossed about by Johnny Carson’s guests that today would be career suicide, comments about ethnic groups and women. It was also weird to see Carson and others smoking cigarettes during the show.

Some would call it a better time, when people didn’t get as worked up about wordage and wisecracks. Others would call it a worse time, when such words disrespected large sections of people, made it easier for people to regard them as second-class citizens.

Maybe it would have just been smarter for me to have skipped big-picture stuff that a dopey sportswriter can’t begin to wrap his keyboard around, and just focus on what prompted Hawkeye Sports Properties to suspend Dolphin for a considerable chunk of the season.

Who made that decision, and why was no one connected to Iowa athletics or the university itself willing to discuss it in Carver-Hawkeye Arena Friday before the men’s basketball game there? Why wouldn’t anyone at least say why they couldn’t or wouldn’t discuss it?

Too often, an enlightened society seems like an impossible dream. It doesn’t help when a state institution that prides itself on enlightenment keeps its own setting on dim.

Let’s all strive to be brighter than dim. In this case, “all” is a word that means “all.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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