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Cleaning up my messes: an apology

*Sigh*.

I love my job. I really do. It still rather boggles my mind that anybody would actually pay me to watch a sporting event and just write down what happens. It’s like being paid to eat candy for a living. And if Willy Wonka wanted me, he’d still have to come up with a raise.

But just as making Candy-Muncher one’s occupation would still have its dental bills, so even being a Sports Editor still has the occasional drawback. The big one, of course, is the very public nature of a mistake.

When I was waiting tables in school, even dropping a 20-piece platter of hot wings in a grandmother’s lap was a done deal by the end of the night. When I tossed pizzas to make ends meet right out of college, I could bake one into the shape of the state of Georgia and get nothing more than a terse “do better.”

But now, mistakes are a little more important than those. Because a good newspaper reports the truth and nothing but, because a good story is one that our readers can believe, and most importantly because the people we interview and write about trust us to protect their good name, a mistake can be a very, very big deal.

Most of the mistakes I’ve made so far with the Times and here on the sports page have been relatively minor: a misspelling here, a name got wrong there. But these are “minor” only when compared to the sorts of things that bring in the lawyers. A misspelled name in the paper, public as it is, is the equivalent of having your name pronounced wrong by the principal at your high school assembly. Speaking as someone who was once introduced to the Alabama state 4-H convention as “Jenny Himen,” I know it’s not a good feeling.

Unfortunately, I made a much, much bigger mistake this week than landing a typo in the middle of someone’s name (though, naturally, I managed that on more than one occasion, too). This time, I got my facts badly, badly wrong and inadvertently threatened someone’s reputation.

In Wednesday’s 2005 High School Football Preview issue, I wrote an article on the Demopolis High School football team and their outlook for the 2005 season. In it, I wrote that senior starting fullback and linebacker Jacob Smelley had missed the 2004 season because of academic problems.

As several people I have since spoken to have informed me, nothing could be the further from the truth. Jacob is an excellent student and played in every game of the 2004 season. He has never had academic issues and never will.

As this is the case, I would like to apologize in print to Jacob and his family. I deeply, deeply regret my error and any pain or misunderstanding my mistake might have caused. I was too careless in handling something as important as Jacob’s character and again, I am deeply sorry.

How did it happen? I suppose I could describe the combination of notebook scribblings and thought-they-were-clear-enough

memories from my conversation with coach Goodwin that led to me being certain enough to print it. But suffice it to say it was just a terrible misunderstanding on my part: coach Goodwin said one thing and I heard something completely different.

If there’s any bright side to this, it’s that after talking to Jacob in person Thursday afternoon, it’s clear that anyone who knows him (or, clearly, even watched DHS football last year) knows there’s no way that what I wrote could be true. Hopefully most of our readers recognized that I was just plain laughably wrong.

But there’s bound to be one or two who I’ve managed to thoroughly, thoroughly mislead, and the thought of it honestly makes me sick to my stomach. I could stand back and say “Everyone makes mistakes,” and yes, there are times already I’ve spoken to angry parents whose child’s name has been printed one letter off and couldn’t help but have it flash through my mind. But in a case like this, “everyone makes mistakes” doesn’t cut it. Our readers deserve better. I can do better.

And if there’s anything I hope I’ve shown in my work for the Times, it’s that I want to do better. I have tried to be the kind of reporter and Sports Editor that when I say I care about getting it right and that I will not make this kind of mistake again, our readers can believe me. So here it is: I care about getting it right and will aim not make this kind of mistake again. Hang in there with me, folks. I think it’ll be worth it.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some hearing aids to comparison shop for.