Personal Foul

Dennis Green is the most controversial coach in Vikings history. And it's got nothing to do with football.

America's preoccupation with race is both transcended and magnified in sport, so perhaps it's no wonder that things have been getting tense lately both on and off the field. Nationally, the latest blowup came when black pro basketball player Latrell Sprewell was given an unprecedented year-long suspension for assaulting his white coach, setting off a heated debate over thuggery and lack of due process. Locally, Gopher basketball coach Clem Haskins--fresh from winning a Big Ten championship and being named NCAA Coach of the Year--was chided for hypocrisy and excessive pride after one of his players was convicted of domestic assault; meanwhile Vikings coach Dennis Green accused team owners and sportswriters of conspiring to remove him.

These and other matters felt like interesting agenda items for a City Pages roundtable of black sportswriters. By the time schedules permitted the meeting to take place, however, the headlines made it obvious that the conversation would have one dominant topic: the increasingly stormy tenure of coach Green, the second black head coach in the NFL and the anointed bogeyman of sports talk in the nation's whitest metropolitan area.

As far back as 1994, Green stated on the radio that the media hated his guts and that he felt the same way about the media. It's been downhill from there. By the end of the '97 season PiPress columnist Bob Sansevere had called Green "the cockroach of NFL coaches, and that is meant to be a compliment," and the Star Tribune's Dan Barreiro had likened him to the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. For his part, Green told ABC correspondent Lesley Visser that three unnamed Twin Cities columnists and at least one member of the Vikings board would not rest until he was gone.

It's one of the enduring features of celebrity media battles that after a few years, it's hard to remember what sparked the controversy in the first place. In Green's case, much of the talk about "off-the-field troubles" goes back to Super Bowl Sunday 1995, when the Star Tribune published a lengthy front-page article revealing that the Vikings had paid $150,000 to settle a sexual-harassment claim against an assistant coach. According to the Strib, an affidavit by a former Vikings employee also detailed "sexually inappropriate behavior" by Green. Less than two weeks later, the Strib reported that a former employee at Stanford University, where Green previously coached, had threatened to add sexual-harassment charges against Green to an employment-discrimination suit she had filed against the university. The suit was settled before any further charges were filed. To this day, Green has never been formally charged with sexual harassment.

In September 1996, KSTP-TV reported that in 1992 Green had paid for an abortion for a 39-year-old woman because he feared the baby would ruin his career. Green and the woman had previously sued each other over her claims that he had broken a contract of confidentiality and caused her emotional distress by discussing the matter with a third party. A judge eventually dismissed the suits and fined the woman's attorney $10,000. Green has referred to the matter as a "regrettable incident."

The latest controversy involving Green is a result of the coach's own pronouncements. In his book No Room for Crybabies, published in September, Green threatened to sue members of the Vikings board for trying to replace him with former University of Minnesota coach Lou Holtz. In lieu of a cash settlement, Green suggested that he be given a share of the franchise. When confronted about this by the media, he claimed he was "just thinking out loud."

It was against this backdrop that four veteran black journalists convened over pizza in the City Pages conference room during the day of New Year's Eve. They were Ray Richardson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Charles Hallman and Kwame McDonald of the Minneapolis Spokesman, and Larry Fitzgerald, who has had shows on KFAN and KMOJ and writes a column in the Spokesman. The conversation ran for more than two hours and continued intermittently over the following week.

Like any good discussion, this one took an unexpected course. Though at least two of the four participants have criticized Green in the past, this time they were unanimous in defending him (almost as unanimous as their counterparts have been in their attacks). Their reasons for taking this stance--varied, complex, and at times surprising--propelled the conversation beyond water-cooler platitudes. What follows is the other side to the Green story, the one rarely, if ever, found in the mainstream media.

CITY PAGES: When I listened to KFAN right after Minnesota beat the Giants, as many callers seemed disappointed that Dennis Green might come back as were happy that the Vikings won a playoff game. Why do you think this guy is disliked so much?

LARRY FITZGERALD: I think part of it is because they didn't have him as their first choice from the beginning. It is well documented what happened the first day he was here, with Sid Hartman and everything.

RAY RICHARDSON: I was there that day. I have been in this business 18 years and I have never seen a journalist act that way in my life. Sid stood up in a press conference and asked [Vikings owner] Roger Headrick, "Why didn't you hire Pete Carroll?" Because Carroll had been in town before as a member of the Vikings' staff, he naturally was Sid's guy. I felt bad for Dennis because this should have been his crowning moment; the second black coach in the [modern history of the] NFL, and he has got to face that the first day here. And I know that left a bad taste in his mouth.

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