Let me start off with this: This piece is about two people I respect. But it's also about how even people you respect can make dumb decisions.
If you've followed the Ryan Leaf story for the past 12 months or so, you know that the former Washington State quarterback has gone far, far out of his way to own up to the numerous personal failings that led to his all-too-brief NFL career and eventual arrest stemming from trying to steal pain killers from one of his players at West Texas A&M, where he was a coach.
In fact, during the media tour surrounding the release of his book, I privately wondered to friends if he wasn't taking the self flagellation a little too far. I mean, how many times should a guy have to apologize for the biggest mistakes of his life? In public, no less?
Yet, there was Leaf, dutifully going from interview to interview, answering the same questions the same way, over and over again. I know this, because I listened to probably eight of them on various media outlets and read another half-dozen stories. Roughly paraphrased, it went something like this:
"Yes, I made mistakes. No, it wasn't anyone's fault but mine. No, I don't think I would have been successful if Indianapolis had drafted me, because the problem was with me. Yes, I really am doing this now because I want to help people not repeat my mistakes." Etc., etc., etc.
I had my fair share of run-ins with Leaf when we were at WSU, but I've come to respect the heck out of him for how he's handled his recovery. People can change. It's a basic tenet of my faith, and I believe that Leaf truly has endeavored to become a new and better person.
So when a story came out of San Diego this weekend about Leaf -- who was in Indianapolis at the Super Bowl to promote his book, 596 Switch -- I casually checked it out as I usually try to do. There are nearly 881 words that follow the exact same narrative as every other interview I've seen and read, and that includes the tone of the book. Those 881 words are frank and honest and responsible, as usual.
Then, there are the other 52 words.
"I know the Chargers made mistakes, but I made a bunch of mistakes myself, and I've got to take responsibility for that. I mean, Mike Riley is an idiot, but I can't do anything to change that. He wasn't supposed to be a head coach in the NFL. Why was he there?"
The quote stuck out to me, but only because it's so outside the typical response for Leaf as he's tried to own up to his issues. Predictably, however, it seems to be sticking out to others for exactly the reason I feared from the moment I read it. For example, here's Ted Miller's take, over at his ESPN Pac-12 Blog:
Leaf is not qualified to call someone an idiot. The life he has led, from an NFL bust, to blaming everyone but himself for being a bust, to pleading guilty to felony drug charges, to calling a truly nice guy an idiot, shows that his bulb continues to burn dimly. Saying such a thing so publicly only makes Leaf look crass and petty and juvenile.
First of all, this sort of a take doesn't surprise me; there are plenty of people who have a preconceived of Leaf that was formed a decade (or more) ago, and either A) No amount of apologizing is going to change that, or B) They just haven't seen or heard from him and have no idea that he very much appears to be a totally different person.
I would not expect Miller to fall into either of those categories, yet here we are. He's generally nuanced, reserving judgment, asking his readers to think through all sides of an issue. That he didn't do the same here is puzzling, especially when Leaf has been at this for a year now, even spending a full day doing the ESPN "car wash." I know Miller's based out of Arizona and not Bristol, but I would assume he watches the network and/or listens to ESPN Radio. Leaf was pretty impossible to miss at that point.
In fact, a quick search reveals that Miller is indeed aware of what Leaf has been saying. That he took such a short quote and used it to paint such a broad brush suggests he either falls squarely in Category A or was personally offended on behalf of Mike Riley. Based on Miller's response tonight, either appears plausible, and I'll leave it up to you to draw your own conclusion. (Although, I will say, if you've followed media for any length of time, many of them do indeed fall into Category A with respect to any number of individuals they have covered over the years. They tend to be a pretty unforgiving lot, unfortunately. Again, don't know if this is Miller or not.)
The worst part, in terms of how this makes Miller look, is that Leaf already owned up to what he said, via Twitter:
Notice the date? That was two days ago. It took Brian all of 30 seconds to find it. You know what else it took Brian 30 seconds to find? Context for Leaf's comment. You can listen to the radio interview from last week here, but if you want the short version, it turns out that Leaf was pretty darn attached to Kevin Gilbride, the head coach at San Diego when he was drafted. Gilbride also was fired six games into his rookie season and eventually replaced with Riley, whom Leaf just didn't respond as well to. (Obviously.)
With just a little bit of research, it's pretty clear Leaf wasn't insulting Riley's intelligence -- as Miller also asserted -- but merely his ability to coach an NFL team. If you want to dispute that on the grounds that Riley's a "nice guy," fine; I'll just go ahead and point you to the 14-34 record he compiled in three seasons in San Diego.
I understand that Riley will forever get the benefit of the doubt because he's won over so many members of the media with his "aw shucks" attitude and "little engine that could" program. I also understand that Leaf will forever not get the benefit of the doubt because of his past transgressions. I also understand that this quote is unfortunate -- even if it's actually true, which it may well be -- because it takes away from Leaf's current message. But as Leaf said ... #mistakes. We all make them.
So, just as Leaf should have said what he said differently, Miller should have done his homework on this one. I know Ryan Leaf doesn't need me to defend him; in fact, another common soundbite from his many interviews is that he doesn't worry about what people think of him because he can't control them -- he can only control himself. So while I'm sure Miller's take might sting Leaf a little (how couldn't it?), I'm certain he's not losing sleep over it.
But journalism is my realm, and this sort of thing, frankly, ticks me off. To continue to perpetuate the "Ryan Leaf as village idiot" narrative -- especially when casually chalked up to an over-the-top attempt to "drum up interest for a book" whose tone is so completely the opposite of this sort of quote that it's pretty obvious Miller hasn't read it -- is irresponsible, and terribly disappointing from a journalist I respect.
Here's the difference, though: I'm willing to chalk it up to Miller making a hasty mistake, because there's too much evidence that this is uncharacteristic. I understand Leaf's track record isn't as long, but it's too bad Miller couldn't at least measure his response by somewhat doing the same.