Clarence Thomas: He fails to clear even the sportswriting bar

  Over coffee recently, a bunch of us old sportswriting cronies discussed the obvious things – Kraken, Mariners, Huskies, Cougars.

  And of course, Clarence Thomas.

  I brought up the subject of America’s freeloading magistrate in the context of our own modest little profession. Yes, believe it or not, those of us who work in the so-called “toy department” of newspapers are held to standards that apparently have escaped the sensibilities of Thomas, who never met a handout he couldn’t justify.

  ProPublica’s reporting has been exhaustive on Thomas’ extended palm, from decades of idling on superyachts and private planes owned by conservative Texas billionaire Harlan Crow; to the tuition Crow forked over for two boarding schools attended by Thomas’ grandnephew; to Crow’s purchase and improvements to the home of Thomas’ mother; to an illicit payment made by a right-wing nonprofit to Thomas’ wife Ginni (maybe she used the cash to further her deep interest in Donald Trump’s stop-the-steal movement).

  I’m hearing strains of Dionne Warwick’s old tune, “That’s What Friends Are For.”

  Excuse me while I pick my jaw off the floor. Yes, there’s outrage over Thomas’ behavior, but the fact it’s relatively muted reflects how warped our political moral compass is these days.

    Reacting to the weight of those reports recently on Meet the Press, Sara Fagen, a Republican strategist, said, “The partisan nature of what is going on in life today, in politics today, is why we see so much scrutiny on this court and on these justices. There’s been a standard on Thomas, since the minute he stepped onto the Supreme Court, that liberals have wanted to take him out.”

   Which has, what, exactly, to do with a respected investigative force revealing Clarence Thomas to be nothing more than reprobate willing to accept just about anything from a guy who happens to be of like politics?

  Among the things I don’t get these days are why the Mariners can’t get a runner home from third with less than two out, and just about everything surrounding the Supreme Court. I don’t get how these people get lifetime terms – who gets a lifetime term except somebody going to the
Big House? – I don’t get how their nomination and confirmation can rest in the hands of a single power-obsessed Senator, and I don’t get how Clarence Thomas is allowed to enjoy Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous because he knows somebody whose leanings he once described as “sympatico” to his.

  (And all this time, we thought Thomas was vacationing in Wal-Mart parking lots, something he has said runs closer to his down-time proclivities.)

  Thomas is a living, breathing conflict of interest because, well, there is no code of ethics for Supreme Court justices. Somehow, this is all backwards. Rather than justices being held to a standard of conduct bespeaking their breathtaking power, we’ve decided that these people are so Christ-like, their confirmation to the court waves off any necessity for a set of behavioral guidelines.

  So with that backdrop, a small group of old scribes started telling stories of how we were on the take, too.

  When I started working in Eugene more than five decades ago, I recall a superior asking what my “ticket needs” were for University of Oregon football. Those ticket needs – I took two — were covered by the Ducks. So I guess you could say I was once a UO season-ticket holder.

   One of our coffee compadres said former Times sports editor Georg Meyers would be given 10 season tickets to the Mariners of the ‘70s, and those were distributed as per-game requests by staffers.

   Somebody recalled how a pro-wrestling promoter would slip cash into the top desk drawer of a sports editor in Oregon, just to thank him for keeping Dutch Savage in mind in the local sporting landscape.

  Starting in 1960, there was an annual August tour of the conference’s football camps by the Pac-8/10 “Skywriters.” The league would pay for flights and hotels, and the individual schools would cover meals for writers and broadcasters to publicize the league’s coming season.

  The Oakland Raiders used to hand out TVs at Christmastime to the people who covered them.

  Fast-forward a few decades. In Eugene, I think we were told to quit accepting free tickets sometime around 1980. That happened in Seattle as well. Over time, until the demise of the Pac-10 Skywriters tour in 1989, media outlets began paying for part, then all of, the freight associated with the tour.

  One fellow in our klatch wrote for a paper in Las Vegas and even did his part to try to exhibit honor when he was covering Jerry Tarkanian’s infamous basketball program at UNLV.

  “Coach said your shoes are looking a little worn out, and you should have these,” said a receptionist to the writer in the basketball office one day.

  There, inside a box, was a pair of high-top sneakers.

  The writer knew better, and protested that he needed to pay for the shoes. The receptionist said there was no way to do that.

   So he went to the equipment manager and said he wanted to pay for them. What did they cost? The equipment guy said he had no idea. So the writer handed him some bills and said, “Look, I don’t care what you do with this or who you give it to, but I’m paying you for these shoes.”

  The point isn’t the evolving purity of reporters. It’s that their profession recognized, like four decades ago, that it wasn’t a good look to be vacuuming up tickets from franchises they covered. And one would think that if you can coax principle into a dispensable enterprise like sportswriting, you ought to be able to get the concept across to the erudite souls on the Supreme Court.

  We were always told: It’s not evidence of impropriety that matters, it’s the appearance of it.

  Somehow, after weighing in on society’s greatest debates for three decades on the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas missed that memo.