I drove into the press parking lot at Martinsville Speedway last year, slowly edging my way toward my parking space as race fans swarmed all around me carrying coolers and paying no attention to the car with the press sticker on the window.
A lot attendant saw the situation and ran into the crowd yelling “Media! Get out of the way, media coming through!”
Now, there was a time in my career when this would’ve been a gratifying experience. I relished having a media sticker on my window and to this day I keep my Masters press sticker on the windshield year-round.
But these days, it’s a different world. And on this morning, a lot of people were in no mood to get out of the way of a sportswriter going to work.
The f-bombs began to fly immediately. Emboldened by an angry climate in the country now (and possibly by a morning six pack of Bud Light), several of the fans had no problem banging the hood of my car, slamming my windows and kicking the doors, spitting at me, literally standing in front of my car, middle fingers directed at me and refusing to budge.
It was a scary situation, and I wasn’t entirely sure it would end well.
I didn’t know all the journalists killed in Annapolis this week. But I worked on press row with one of them. And I couldn’t tell you what it must’ve been like in that newsroom when an angry reader shot his way into The Capital Gazette before going on a murderous spree.
But I know how it started.
We all know how it started.
Last year was the most dangerous year ever for journalists worldwide. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists and the group Reporters Without Borders, 17 reporters were killed last year. But only six months into 2018, double that many have been killed – CPJ says 33, Reporters counts 40.
There was a time when sportswriters found themselves confronting drunk fans on a nightly basis, sometimes getting into arguments, sometimes dodging objects thrown from afar, sometimes having to physically defend themselves against idiots who see sports as something worth fighting over.
But that was child’s play looking back on it.
I remember one night in the old Greensboro Coliseum, I was walking in to cover a Monarchs hockey game when the owner of the visiting Roanoke Rebels started screaming at me from three sections over. There were only a few hundred people in the arena at the time and they heard the man threaten to “put a hit out” on me. In other words, he was saying he was going to have me killed.
There was total silence in the arena. I did the only thing I knew to do. I laughed at him. Then everybody in the Greensboro Coliseum laughed at him. Then he did the only thing he could do. He laughed, too.
But that morning in Martinsville, as the crowd slowly dispersed except for one guy, I was worried. I parked my car with him walking backward in front of me, holding up double birds while his wife stood aside and shook her head.
I got out of my car, closed the door and walked toward him. I was wearing a black blazer and black cowboy boots, which made me look taller and a lot cooler than the idiot dressed in a Kyle Busch jacket and untied tennis shoes.
I never said a word as I walked toward him. He mumbled something about liking my boots, grabbed his wife by the arm and walked away as she turned over her shoulder and mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
I don’t know if that was the way to handle the situation, but I know this. What happened in Annapolis this week won’t change how the media does its job. They put the paper out that day. That’s what we do. We put the paper out.
And if anyone in this country thinks we’re going to cower in the face of evil, even as some of our leaders spew hate and lies toward us, think again. We’re not walking backward.
John McNamara was a sportswriter, an old ACC sportswriter who covered Maryland with us in the Cole Field House days. Those were raucous nights on the road when Gary Williams could whip a crowd into a frenzy and turn the game into the Terps vs. the world, the Tobacco Road opponent, the refs and the visiting press.
John was one of us. He was the one in the newsroom when the killer walked in with a shotgun. But it could’ve been any of us.
We don’t know what really sparked this outraged reader to walk into The Capital planning to kill newspaper employees. But you get the feeling that something changed in this country Thursday.
We’ll bury one of our own in the coming days.
And then we’ll put the damn paper out.