Reporter’s Notebook Block That Story!

Why did Dale Hansen and Randy Galloway smother the truth behind Cowboy Mark Tuinei’s mysterious death? Because in the insular world of sports media, being a good ol’ boy is more important than being a good reporter.

MOST OF THE TOP-SHELF MEDIA OUTLETS around the country maintain what is known as a “disaster dossier,” something to be opened and utilized when the Big Story-an earthquake or a high school massacre-strikes from nowhere. This dossier includes the names and up-to-date beeper numbers of essential personnel with the police and at hospitals. The dossier material serves as a starting place to mobilize the news staff. So, when a Delta jumbo jet crashes at D/FW or tornadoes blow away half the slate of Oklahoma, local media organizations are well-prepared with action plans to produce coverage worthy-perhaps-of a Pulitzer Prize.

It now seems clear that a “Cowboys Calamity” hie needs to be inserted into the disaster dossier. That was never more apparent than when word surfaced that Mark Tuinei, a recently retired offensive tackle, had been found dead early one May morning in the 1933 ^ customized Ford parked in the driveway of his Piano home.

Instead of mobilizing, the sports media stalled. The possessive public was eager to learn the details behind the sad scenario. Bui the local media took a dive and still lie in a heap at the deep end of an empty pool.

Tuinei, after all. was a hometown warrior hero, an undrafted free agent who fought his way, almost literally, into Pro Bowl recognition. Only Tuinei, Bill Bates, and Too Tall Jones would play as many as 15 seasons in a Cowboys uniform. So the cause of his death instantly became a hot topic of local discussion among Dallas fans. But on the evening of the day that Tuinei’s body was found. Dale Hansen appeared on the Channel 8 news and put the public in its rightful place. Striking an unctuous pose. Hansen said, “I don’t know why he died. I don’t know how he died. And I don’t care. I’m one of the lucky ones. I saw Mark Tuinei live.”

Il should be pointed out here that during the final few seasons of his playing tenure, Mark Tuinei, ethnically Polynesian, had been afforded membership in the Cowboys’ prestigious Caucasian Clique. This Clique continues today: In 1998. there were only 11 whites on the roster, and they stuck close together. In Turner’s years, the Clique included Bates, Chad Hennings, Jason Garrett. Daryl Johnston, whomever the place kicker happened to be for the season (as long as he could speak English), and, of course, the most sacred of all cows in local media history, Troy Aikman. You see them photographed together in the Fete Set section of the News, attending some charity event. You saw them all riding in the same convertible in the curiously segregated victory parade after the Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1996 Super Bowl game. But what you never saw was any member of the clique being criticized by the local media for anything they did on or off the football field. If Aikman had a bad game, it was always the fault of Barry Switzer, depicted by the area news forces as the coaching profession’s answer to Jack Ruby. (In this case, in fairness to the media, the depiction was probably correct.)

The Caucasian Clique frequenlly socialized with pool and poker games at Tuinei’s home, otherwise known as Tooie’s Playhouse. Hansen had been invited to attend some of these festivities, apparently making Dale an honorary white Cowboy.

On the heels of the Hansen eulogy came an even stronger admonition to the public from Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Randy Galloway. “This autopsy report that’s due shortly on Mark Tuinei-why do you care? Or to be more blunt…frankly, my dear, it’s none of your damn business, or mine.”

In Hansen and Galloway, we have the twin oracles of local sports commentary. Now they speak down to us, the loathsome and morbidly curious sports public, from their pulpit in the sky. They ’re at 12,000 feet and gaining altitude fast. “We knew Tooie and you didn’t, poor sinner, so buzz off.” What a remarkable transformation. Now we can hear the word from two new media personalities-the Reverend Dale Railey and the gyrating pastor. Randy Tilton.

A day or so after the proletariat had been set straight came the startling revelation that Mark Tuinei had died of an overdose of heroin and a some other designer drug. The old John Belushi special.

There’s a bit of irony al work here, Galloway and I were trav-eling together in Florida in March 1982, when word came that Belushi had OD’d. Galloway. with sad eyes, wondered aloud, “What the f— is a speedball?” He was frankly curious about the cause of Belushi’s death, so I thought it was strange that he end his column on Tuinei with a sentence thai read, “If the “why’ (cause of death) is important to you, then please leave your name and number after the beep, Just so I can tell you again that it’s none of your damn business.”

The heroin deaths of Piano teenagers have evolved into a national media event. It’s national news whenever a Dallas Cowboy is cited for jaywalking. Peculiar, isn’t it, that when the Tuinei autopsy renderings become available, the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Sacred Knights of the First Amendment offered a collective “tsk, tsk” and hastily turned to more pressing issues, such as the Dallas Stars’ power-play struggles in the playoffs.

The big papers and TV stations certainly maintain the investigative resources to produce an hour-by-hour account of Mark Tuinei’s activities with teammate Nicky Sualua on the night before and morning of his death. We, the ghoulish consumers of the media product, have not seen that story, and we probably never will.

This non-coverage of the life and death of Mark Tuinei offers a contrast to the local media response to the infamous press conference after the 1996 season. That was when the police announced that Michael Irvin, the receiver already on probation for cocaine possession, and tackle Erik Williams had been accused of sexually assaulting a Dallas woman.

Following that press conference, Channel 5*8 Marty Griffin assured viewers that formal charges would filed against both Irvin and Williams by the end of the day. Local media. in effect, had already dug Michael Irvin’s grave down at Peckerwood Hill, which is what they call the cemetery near our state’s equal-opportunity death house down in Huntsville.

Mickey Spagnola used to cover the Cowboys for the Times Herald and now covers the team for the Insider newsletter and KTCK-AM 1310. Easily the most knowledgeable media personality in town when it comes to the Cowboys, he remembers the day with crystal clarity.

“When the feeding frenzy began after the police press conference, they asked me to go on CNN, which was getting ready to air a report that practically had Irvin and Williams convicted,” Spagnola says. “I was reluctant to go on. and I didn’t go on camera but talked on the phone. What I said was. ’Let’s slow down here and consider the person who’s accusing these guys, I mean, how do you rape a tittie dancer?’ They seemed stunned when I said that. I guess it wasn’t politically correct.”

Did the local media look bad in its early coverage of this “breaking story?” Only to the extent that Channel 5 would pay the football players $2 million to settle their libel claim. Meanwhile, it was the accuser and not the originally accused who would wind up in jail for making the whole thing up. When it appeared that she might be deported to her native Iran, the most accurate account of that situation came from not from the area media but from Jay Leno. who noted that “”she’ll dance topless in Iran, all right. After the ayatollah chops her head off.”

Speaking of the disparity of coverage technique between the Irvin-Williams episode and Tuinei’s death, Spagnola offers this analysis. “No question that the media kind of acquiesced on this, but I don’t think that this is a black-white thing. It’s more that Tuinei was regarded as a good guy with the media. He was generous with his time and his comments. And when reporters deal with personalities who they like or don’t like, then it carries over into the way they cover the team, even the way they describe the games. Maybe it’s subconscious, but it happens, and there is no such animal as the completely unbiased reporter.”

Galloway says he barely knew Mark Tuinei. “At the time I wrote the column, there was no evidence of any wrongdoing on anybody’s part. Later, we would find out differently, of course,” Galloway says. “Where I made my mistake was going on the Fisher show.”

Galloway is referring to the day he vacated his WBAP microphone long enough to debate his former Star-Telegram colleague Mike Fisher, who co-hosts a sports show on KLIF. Galloway wanted to respond to Fisher’s on-the-air comments that he [Galloway] was, among other things, an arch hypocrite. The Galloway-Fisher confrontation set a new standard (whether that standard is high or low remains a separate issue) for acrimonious dialogue.

Fisher: “Shut up.”

Galloway: “You don’t tell me to shut up. I tell you to shut up.”

It was reminiscent of a similar public fracas four years earlier, when Galloway got involved in a cuss match with Skip Bayless, now working in Chicago. “Lemme say this,” Galloway declared after the recent skirmish with Fisher over the Tuinei dispute. “Skip Bayless is a rat with talent. Mike Fisher is a rat with no talent.”

Fisher responds: “Galloway won’t admit this, but there was once a time when I felt that we actually got along pretty well. Obviously, that’s no longer the case.

That’s not the point. What’s important is that this [the Tuinei coverage] is another step in the death of sports journalism in this area,” Fisher contends. “This story was a horrible thing, and we blew it. I was dumbfounded. When those accusations first came down on the Irvin-Williams thing, Michael Irvin’s only comment was. ’I hope that when the truth comes out, the media will chase that part of the story with the same intensity that it’s covering the story now.’

“Did the media do that? No. And the media certainly didn’t do that with the Tuinei story.”

One media personality who did manage to stand out in the crowd was Mike Rhyner, part of the afternoon drive-lime program on the all-sports KTCK (The Ticket), a station that enjoys ever-broadening ratings with a format that sometimes seems geared to the tastes of eighth-grade window peepers. But Rhyner, on the Black Thursday when Mark Tuinei died, simply said, “We should restrain our comments until the autopsy results come in. And when they do, Cowboys fans better be prepared, because the news will not be good.”

“We were ahead of the curve on this,” Rhyner says, “because a few weeks prior to this, we were talking about an article in Sports Illustrated about the old Baltimore Colts great, Big Daddy Lipscomb, who died fairly young back in the 1960s. The coroner said that he had enough heroin in his body to kill live men. Now this new heroin, as everybody knows, is out there and it’s lethal, and I said on the air that it would be only a matter of time before we would see a sports personality die because of that stuff,” he says.

Rhyner says he is “appalled” at how the media portrayed Tuinei as a fallen hero, offered its somber farewell, and moved on to the next story. “I was around Tuinei at some public gatherings,” Rhyner recalls, “and sometimes he was all right. But there were a couple of times when he wasn’t. He was out of control, calling attention to himself in a pretty inappropriate manner, and it didn’t take an expert in the behavioral sciences to see that there was a dark side to Mark Tuinei.

“Anyway, who died and made Hansen and Galloway the kings of media who can tell people what they are and are not entitled to know?”

Curiously, the cause of Mark Tuinei’s death might be termed “self-inflicted manslaughter,” and if that’s the case, then this is a hell of story, a story that the media has chosen to ignore. But no matter how the news gatherers continue to cover this team, one fact remains: We’ll see the day that somebody turns Crozier Tech High School into a five-star hotel before the day arrives that the Cowboys’ image loses its stain.

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