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#PMARSHONAU: When opinions matter

When I was the sports editor and sports staff at the now defunct Huntsville News at the ripe old age of 21, I thought being able to write a sports column was a really neat thing. I could state my opinion for everyone to see.

Around that time, Auburn was negotiating with Tennessee to play its home games in the series at what was then Cliff Hare Stadium instead of at Legion Field in Birmingham. In my wisdom, I decided that Auburn just wasn’t prepared to handle games like that. And I wrote about it. I wrote about traffic jams and overcrowding.

The late, great Bill Easterling, who would become one of my best friends, was the sports editor of The Huntsville Times. He answered the kid at The Huntsville News with a column of his own.

He wondered just how many college football games the kid had covered (not many). He wondered if the kid had ever even been to a football game in Knoxville and experienced the massive traffic jams of football Saturdays (he hadn’t). Essentially, he said the kid had no clue what he was talking about (he didn’t).

I asked Bill later why he would even waste time responding to the opinion of an unimportant sports writer’s column in an unimportant newspaper. He told me he did it for me. I appreciate it still.

I learned a valuable lesson. Anyone can have an opinion about anything. They can talk about it over the water cooler at work. In modern times they can post it on a message board or express it on a radio talk show. There’s not one thing wrong with that. Life would be kind of dull without opinions.

But that doesn’t apply to a person who claims to be a professional writing his column in a newspaper (or for a web site). To be credible, that person’s opinion must be based on something other than just what he woke up in the morning feeling, especially when it comes to the big issues of the day.

I could write a column about politics and spout my beliefs about some issue or another. I could write a column about government or religion. I could do it, but why? My opinion is no different than anyone else’s opinion. I’m neither involved nor do I cover any of those things.

To believe, just because I write for a living, that my opinion of those things would matter enough for me to write about them would be amazingly arrogant.

To be credible or relevant, a columnist’s opinion must be based on real knowledge of the subject or real research. Otherwise, it’s not worth the space it takes up in a newspaper or on a web site. It’s just an opinion like anyone else’s opinion.

If I write an opinion about Auburn football, you might disagree. You might vehemently disagree. But you know I am around Auburn football almost every day of the year. You know I know the people who make the decisions about Auburn football. That doesn’t make my opinions right. They might well be wrong, but they have a basis in knowledge and experience.

When a newspaper columnist who spends little if any time at Auburn starts his piece by implying that Selena Roberts, because she is an Auburn graduate, is credible when she writes negative things about Auburn, I know immediately he is not knowledgeable and has not researched the subject about which he is writing.

And he writes this:

Last week, I contacted the NCAA after the Roberts’ story dropped.

“We cannot comment on current, pending or potential investigations,” an NCAA spokesperson responded via email.

So the NCAA isn’t done with Auburn. And, to think, that 2010 season was once a feel-good story.

Much like a columnist wondered long ago if a kid had ever been to Knoxville to a football game, I wonder if the columnist has ever called the NCAA to ask about a school being accused of something. That’s the response you get 100 percent of the time. It, of course, does not mean the NCAA isn’t done with Auburn. It doesn’t mean anything, and that isn’t an opinion.

I know how much things have changed since a veteran columnist in Huntsville got a kid’s attention 42 years ago. But some things haven’t changed.

Some opinions matter. And some opinions are just, well, opinions.

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