Jeff Pearlman

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Maurice Patton

#274
He spent nearly a quarter century writing (beautifully) for a newspaper. Then, one day, he was summoned by human resources and told "we won’t be going forward with you." It was the greatest relief of his life. POSTED September 20, 2016

 

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In many ways, Maurice Patton is a common media story.

He’s the guy who devoted much of his life to covering sports for a local newspaper. He cultivated sources, pursued leads, took pride in producing riveting, detailed copy. Then, one day, the newspaper decided his services were no longer needed. And he was shown the door.

In many ways, Maurice Patton is an uncommon media story.

He’s the guy who considers his departure from print a genuine relief. He no longer waits for the other shoe to drop; no longer enters the newspaper headquarters-turned-crypt and fears the inevitable hug from the ink-stained grim reaper.

He has been set free.

He has been born again.

He has been renewed.

Today, Maurice Patton, my friend and former Tennessean colleague, runs his own site, Mo Patton Sports, that covers Middle Tennessee athletics. He also hosts his own podcast, and Tweets prolifically. Here, he talks in detail about watching print die; about covering sports in the deep south as an African-American man and why he prefers the Dooble Brothers to chicken fried chicken.

Mo Patton, you are the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Mo, I’m gonna start with what, for this section, is an unusually self-indulgent question. Back in 1995, when I was a young asshole reporter, you were covering Tennessee football for The Tennessean and I was a baby high school reporter with enough arrogance and dickishness to fill 100 rooms. Anyhow, our sports editor flew me to New Orleans to write a lengthy Peyton Manning profile—and I remember thinking that you must have been really pissed. A. Because it was your beat; B. Because I was insufferable. I never asked out of embarrassment—but here we are. So do you remember this? Did it, rightly, piss you off? And how awful was I (I can take it)?

MAURICE PATTON: Honestly, I don’t remember it. There was a lot going on at that time, though. I took on the Tennessee beat after covering high schools for five years. This was before the Titans and the Predators had arrived in Nashville, so UT was ‘the’ beat in our sports department, even though it was a pain in the ass because Knoxville is three hours away. And I’m sure there were a handful of people who weren’t comfortable with the decision for me to be assigned to the beat, for a number of reasons—and we’ll leave that at that. So, I don’t remember it, but I’m not surprised by it. And while I don’t remember being pissed off at that, there was another situation where a takeout piece on a prominent Nashville Sounds (another beat I covered extensively) pitcher was assigned to another (former) Tennessean writer and I was pissed off about that one. Over 24½ years, though, there’s a lot to be pissed off over.

As for you, you were obnoxious, everybody knew it, and it was just a given.

J.P.: Two years ago you were let go by The Tennessean after more than two decades at the newspaper. I’m wondering how this hit you, how it impacted you. And how did they tell you the news?

M.P.: Seriously, my initial emotion was relief. We had been through so many “layoffs’”over the five years or so prior to mine that if you were being real with yourself, you knew it was just a matter of time. Everybody dies. The timing was amazingly stupid, even for them: You’re getting rid of both your high school sports guys three weeks into the high school football season, and you’re clueless as to how you’re going to replace them. At the same time, I had written three front-page pieces in a three-day period right before I was informed that “we won’t be going forward with you”—their words. So while I wasn’t fool enough to think I was “safe,” it wasn’t a move that would have, or did, make a lot of sense. As I said, once the process of everyone reapplying for their jobs (knowing that some jobs had been eliminated) was completed and they let everyone know that they’d be huddling with an HR person and a newsroom lead person either around 10 am or around 2 pm, the prevailing thought was those with the later meetings were safe and those with the earlier meetings were gone.

Even as sadistic as those people were, it defied logic that folks would have to wait around all day to find out they’d be jobless. So I walk in, sit down, and … the person delivering the news had her script written out on a notepad. It was upside down from where I was seated, but I’ve been reading upside down for as long as I’ve been covering high school basketball. So I knew before she said it. And I breathed easier when I left that meeting than I had for probably three months prior. At least it was over. Irritation, resentment? Yeah. But relief.

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J.P.: What went wrong with newspapers? Besides the obvious rise of digital mediums, can you look back and see obvious mess-ups that damned the medium?

M.P.: I can’t speak for all of them, but where I was, the Internet and the downturn of the economy kinda collided, I think. And the resistance to go behind a paywall from the start was, in retrospect, probably a mistake. Because once you give the information away, you can’t go back and try to charge for it later. That’s a paradigm shift your readership isn’t going to easily swallow. It’s a lot harder turning a “yes into a “no” than the other way around.

J.P.: You’re an African-American man who covered sports in the deep South. What comes with that? What I mean is, have there been moments where you’ve had to bite your tongue? “Boy”-esque references? Did you ever feel coaches or parents or players looking down at you? Or looking at you with some genre of contempt?

M.P.: *LOL* I probably bit my tongue more in the office than covering my beats. I never felt uncomfortable doing my job. I felt uncomfortable at times with who I was doing my job for. I know there was at least one sports editor who had a problem with my needing to interact with certain people in this town for a particularly sensitive issue that arose after I came back to the high school beat in 2009, who took over this specific story and later tried to paint it as if I wasn’t covering it aggressively enough, when everybody in the department knew the deal. But coaches, parents, kids connected to my beat—rarely did I have an issue. Maybe three in 20-plus years.

Once, I called an out-of-area coach to do a football playoff preview and he made the offhand comment that “we’ll be fine if we can keep our niggers in line” I made it a point to interview him after the game. Never have I seen a white guy so pale. Funny story: traveling with a coworker to a UT-Alabama game in Birmingham, we stopped at a convenience store south of Huntsville for a drink and some chips. I rang up, asked for a receipt (for expense report purposes), got it and walked out. Guy behind me steps up to ring up, guy working the register disdainfully asks “What’s he gonna need a receipt for?” My coworker says, “Same thing I do.” Thing is, I’ve been an African-American all my life, to steal from Doug Williams, and I’ve been in the South all my life. If you wear that stuff, you start reacting to things that aren’t necessarily there. There has to be an ability to pick your spots, if you will—figure out what’s important and act accordingly.

J.P.: Along those lines—back when I was at Sports Illustrated we were embarrassingly under-represented when it came to minority reporters. Do you feel like media has improved in this area through the years? Or is it still a large issue?

M.P.: Hard to say. From where I am, I don’t know that things are any better now than they were at any point previously in my career. It may be a regional thing; maybe things are better in other places, in other cities. And as an aside, I think it’s an issue that the media is somewhat hypocritical about from the standpoint that, while the media points at a lack of diversity in so many other fields, it pays little or no attention to the lack of diversity in its own field.

J.P.: I know you attended Middle Tennessee State, I know you live outside of Nashville. But how did journalism happen for you? What was the path?

M.P.: Actually, I pretty well fell into journalism. I wrote for my high school newspaper, but I was an accounting major and was a student worker in the sports information department at MTSU. The summer before I was supposed to graduate (more on that in a second), I started working part-time at the local newspaper. Meanwhile, a couple of senior-level accounting courses were kicking my tail for the second time. Didn’t get my accounting degree, didn’t feel like changing majors and spending another three semesters in school, so I found a job at a tri-weekly paper in my hometown and embarked on my journalism career. I did manage, seven years later, to go back and get my degree in university studies—primarily because a couple of jobs that I had applied for required a degree as a prerequisite.

J.P.: What’s the key to covering a team? What I mean is, you spend all season tracking these same players, same coaches. It seems like it could get really dull and repetitive. So how to bring forth lively coverage? Find new storylines?

M.P.: You have to immerse yourself in it. Engage, interact with and talk to whoever you can, because you never know where a story is or who has it. And the worse the team/program, the more important that becomes, because you can only say “this team sucks” so many different ways. And to me, you can’t always be a reporter. People have to know they can talk to you off the record, that every conversation isn’t an interview. People have to be comfortable with you.

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J.P.: From afar, it’s hard to grasp how despised Lane Kiffin was after he left Tennessee following a year. You’re in the state and you cover sports. How bad was it? And did he deserve the contempt?

It was pretty bad. But I think the timing was what made it the worst. It was January, about a month before National Signing Day, when he took the Southern Cal job. He’d only been there a year. I think those were the two factors that created the firestorm. Was it deserved? Depends on your perspective, obviously. To me, if he didn’t want to be there, he needed to be gone. And he considered USC his dream job. At the time, it was pretty much a no-brainer: UT was coming off the tail end of the Philip Fulmer era and trying to get things righted, while USC was USC. And is there ever really a good time to change jobs?

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

M.P.: Greatest? Covering the first two of Tennessee’s back-to-back-to-back women’s basketball national championships in 1996-98. Lowest? Any time I’ve ever gotten beat on a story.

J.P.: What’s the absolute craziest thing to happen to you as a reporter? Your money story …

M.P.: Didja hear about the college basketball coach that threatened one of his assistants with a gun? My beat. Tennessee State men. Nolan Richardson III. Christmas 2002. Top that.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MAURICE PATTON:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): The Doobie Brothers, Mike Organ, Carlos Rogers, Twitter, Swett’s, art museums, McDonald’s urinals, the number 109, iced coffee, Reggie Smith, chicken fried chicken, nasal hair: Twitter, Mike Organ, Swett’s, The Doobie Brothers … Chicken fried chicken, Reggie Smith, Carlos Rogers109, art museums, iced coffee, nasal hair, McDonald’s urinals.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No. But I usually try to sleep when I fly, so I can avoid those thoughts.

• Biggest blunder you ever made as a journalist?: Thought I was recording an interview, didn’t take notes, realized later my recorder malfunctioned. Technology is a beautiful thing – when it works.

• How did you meet your wife?: At a club. Where else?

• Without looking, how many Elton John songs can you name?: Crocodile Rock. Goodbye Norma Jean. Levon. Rocket Man. Saturday Night. Your Song.

• One question you would ask Shia LaBeouf were he here right now?: Could “Lawless” have been any more violent or bloody?

• What pattern is on your bedspread?: It’s a quilted comforter with Biblical verses.

• Would you rather have a third leg or 17 dogs?: A third leg. 17 dogs would drive me nuts.

• The world needs to know: What was it like meeting Craig Moon?: He’s no John Seigenthaler.

• Please write a poem that includes water, Chuck Muncie, Ritz crackers and Frank Sutherland: Poetry is my weak spot.

  • Ted Mark

    “As for you, you were obnoxious,everybody knew it, and it was just a given.” What a great shot.

    As for the quaz, Mr. Patton sounds like a good guy.

    • Frank Sutherland

      A great guy who put up with more than I will ever know.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life