To The Butler Community College Football Team

Lee White has been invited to address a “virtual” meeting of the Butler Community College football team. Here’s what he has to say:

I’ll get right to the point. I’m here today to talk about the recent theft of The Lantern from distribution boxes around campus. You or your friends — and don’t tell me you don’t know something about this — didn’t like the fact that The Lantern printed a story about one of your former teammates being charged with capital murder. So you thought you could do your friend a favor by taking papers from the racks.

Well, guess what? Your foolish actions have attracted far more attention to your friend’s arrest than if you would have just done the two jobs you were brought to my hometown to do: Go to class and make Butler look good. I can’t speak to how well you’re doing the first job, but I can tell you that you suck at the second one.

A few moments ago, I checked my email. I received a Google alert that the story KWCH-TV did last night appeared on a website operated by the three largest newspapers in Alabama. Here it is. So not only have you made your friend and his crime even more notorious (which will be oh-so-helpful when it comes time to pick the jurors who will decide his fate), you have, on a grand scale, tarnished the reputation of the institution my wife and I attended.

At least some of you are here because your quest for the NFL got derailed somewhere else due to poor academic performance or bad behavior. There’s even a TV series about guys like you. It’s called Last Chance U and it has been filming at Independence Community College. As I told someone on my Facebook page last night: The series could just as well have been shot at Butler.

And I don’t have a problem with using the flotsam and jetsam of the college football world as feedstock for the program at Butler unless and until it starts interfering with the mission of the institution. And despite appearances to the contrary, the mission of the institution is learning, not football. It is where my wife learned to be a nurse. It is where I learned to write, report, and fight for press freedoms — on the very newspaper you trashed last week, The Lantern.

In the 1980s, administrators didn’t like the fact that some student journalists wrote stories that made them look bad. So they tried to get the adviser fired. In the 1990s, the new administrators didn’t like the fact that some student journalists wrote stories that made them look bad, so they tried to get the new adviser fired (the old one had gone to teaching English classes by then). Both times, professional journalists — some who had ties to the Lantern and some who didn’t (Steve McIntosh now at KNSS was one of them) — joined forces to keep the student press free. I’m so proud of the young lady, Kiara Ealy, at KWCH who broke the story this time and the newsroom management who backed her up.

Somebody asked me last night how one can steal a free paper. Well, first off, they’re not free. Students pay for them with their fees. If they don’t pay their fees, they don’t go to school. Kind of like the taxpayers of Butler County who pay $20 for every $1,000 their property is worth to the college. If they don’t pay their taxes, they lose their property.

Then there’s the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Courts have ruled that student journalists have a constitutional right to publish the news without interference from the public schools they attend. A story about a recent member of the football team getting arrested on suspicion of capital murder is damned sure news.

So most of you guys are here on scholarship, basically getting paid to play in the form of free room and board, books and tuition, to the extent that the NJCAA allows. Student athletes at other institutions, in an effort to unionize, have argued to the courts and federal agencies that they are employees of the schools they play for. Thus far, the courts haven’t decided whether they are employees or not, but if an employee of Butler Community College took the newspapers or assisted with the taking of newspapers for the purpose of censoring the student press, that could rise to the level of violating the Lantern staff’s First Amendment rights under color of law.

You see, the Constitution doesn’t protect citizens from the actions of other citizens in most instances. It protects citizens from the actions of government officials. Now, sometimes, as in the case of public accommodations and certain employers, the Constitution protects citizens from discrimination at the hands of other citizens. We recently celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, who repeatedly risked and ultimately gave his life so we could live together as a nation regardless of the color of our skin.

Journalists, too, have had to fight for their rights to print what the public needs to know. I encourage you to view a movie that just came out called The Post. Some brave journalists risked a long stretch in federal prison for printing documents about the Vietnam War. Many journalists have been killed in this country and elsewhere because somebody didn’t like what they published.

Look, guys, I’m sorry about your friend. He’ll have his day in court. But just as the guys you play football with are like brothers to you, those young ladies who run the Lantern are like sisters to me. I’ve never met them, but like Butler’s football program, they are part of a tradition of excellence that encompasses generations and is much bigger than any individual who has ever been a part of it.

I still remember delivering copies of the Lantern with “Were No. 1” emblazoned on the front page after the football team won the 1981 national championship. There was a copy of that paper on a table when many of us gathered on the campus in 2003 to say goodbye to one of those advisers the administration tried to fire, Bill Bidwell. I’m glad that this is a virtual team meeting because you can’t see the tears.

Thank you for your attention. I wish you much success on the field and off.