How North Dakota Lost Its Mind Over A "Choke Job"

On Feb. 16, the Northern Arizona basketball team rallied to beat North Dakota in overtime, 74-72. In a postgame interview with North Dakota head coach Brian Jones, the team's radio guy, Paul Ralston, a university employee, called the loss a "choke job." What ensued was the most pitiful college sports "scandal" in recent memory. The broadcaster groveled before the coach. The school suspended him anyway. Fans and boosters sent angry letters. One of them blamed "political correctness." Another blamed the "left-wing agenda."

We've obtained those emails and more via an open records request. They offer a view from the inside of that rare sports scandal in which everyone manages to be ridiculous.

Let's start with the audio, which can be heard for the first time since the original live broadcast.

Ralston: "I'm not going mince words, the word 'choke job' comes into it a little bit, you give that one away late—"

Jones: "I don't call that a choke job, I disagree, me and you will disagree on that."

Ralston: "OK"

Jones: "I don't like you calling our team a choke job, you're on our side."

Ralston: "I am on your side, but here's—"

Jones: "Then don't say that"

Ralston: "Here's the thing, you have a chance to close out the game, the same way on Thursday night you had a chance to close out you managed to dig it out, but in that time, you had your chances at the line, didn't happen, you had your chance on offensive possessions, didn't happen, it didn't happen."

Jones: "It's not a 'choke job' though. We were 17 for 23 from the line. What the issue is, we had 21 turnovers, that's where we lost the game."

Ralston: "I'm not here to disagree, I-I ok, we can disagree on the labeling, but I'm saying sometimes you gotta admit to what it is, it's just I'm not—"

Jones: "Yeah, but we turned it over, that's what we didn't do. Yeah, we missed some timely free throws from some guys who make them, you know, let's give some credit to Northern Arizona, too."

"Any coach is going to take offense to that whether it's accurate or not, and Coach did initially," Jayson Hajdu, UND assistant athletics director for media relations, told us. "And to his credit, they finished the interview, they kind of went back and forth on it for a few moments, and they actually moved on from it to the next line of questioning."

The actual broadcast was available only in the Grand Forks area (with the station averaging 3,900 listeners at any one time, according to the general manager, via Hajdu), and only a few dozen people listened online, per Hajdu. This was not a scandal in the making.

Just hours after the game, Ralston apologized to the school's athletics director, Brian Faison. The audio clip above was attached.

From: Paul Ralston
To: Brian Faison
Sent: Saturday, February 16, 2013 9:54 PM.
Subject: Post-Game Men's Basketball Audio.
Attachments: UND v NAU Postgame.MP3

Brian,

Thanks again for allowing me to bring this to your attention this evening.

Again, I realize that the fault lies with me. I have listened to it way too many times already, and it is quite apparent, right from the very beginning that I screwed up. The exchange lasts for about 60 seconds. I also realize that was 60 seconds too long. I just feel sick about it and will not allow it to happen again.

There is about another 90 additional seconds of this interview of which went fine, as it progressed. I was just having trouble with the file size, that's why I stopped it where it was. But I can cut out the 2nd half and send it as well if you require.

Again, I'm going to take your direction and try to meet with Coach Jones, ASAP, (hopefully sometime tomorrow) in order to issue an apology of which I can assure you, will be completely sincere along with a reassurance that this will not happen again.

Thank you for your time and I wish you a good evening.

Paul Ralston Director of Broadcast Properties, University of North Dakota-Athletics Play by Play Radio Voice- UND Men's basketball

Just 17 minutes later, Ralston wrote an obsequious email to Jones, in which he vowed to "commit to not putting you in that situation again."

From: Paul Ralston
To: Brian Jones
Sent: Saturday, February 16, 2013 10:11 PM
Subject: Meeting Tomorrow? or at your convenience

Good Evening Coach,

I would like to schedule a meeting with you tomorrow perhaps, but more importantly as it is a Sunday, at your earliest convenience, of when you will be in your office and able to take visitors.

This meeting would allow me to fully apologize, face to face, for today's events during the post-game interview, of which I am completely at fault for. At the time of the meeting, I will take the opportunity to express remorse for making a total mess of things today and to assure you moving forward that I will commit to not putting you in that situation again.

Please let me know if your schedule would allow of a time either tomorrow or Monday where I could come to your office and visit. I really appreciate the opportunity of working with you, and would be quite grateful get a few moments of your time to express disappointment in myself for today's events.

Thank you for your time and I look forward to having the chance to meet with you.

Paul Ralston
Director of Broadcast Properties, University of North Dakota-Athletics. Play by Play Radio Voice- UND Men's basketball

Jones did not respond to Ralston for days. By Monday, UND had made the decision to suspend Ralston, who had been calling games for the school since 2005. He would sit out the next two games.

Early Monday afternoon, Faison issued a statement to Grand Forks Herald beat writer Wayne Nelson. ("I spoke to Faison and he wants to get a comment to Wayne today and get it over with," a media relations staffer wrote to Ralston's temporary replacement.) That statement read:

University of North Dakota Director of Athletics Brian Faison announced on Monday that men's basketball play-by-play announcer Paul Ralston has been suspended from his broadcasting duties for two games due unfortunate comments made in a recent postgame show. The suspension is effective immediately and Ralston will resume his duties and travel with the team for games at Portland State on February 28 and Eastern Washington on March 2. Associate A.D. Kyle Doperalski will fill in for Ralston for the next two games at Northern Colorado (Feb. 20) and at Omaha (Feb. 23).

The Herald posted its story online a few hours later, and then on page three of the Tuesday paper. Other than a couple requests for more information from the Fargo ABC affiliate, it went relatively unnoticed. By Tuesday, Ralston still hadn't talked to Jones and again apologized via email. "I'm not saying this because it made the paper, in fact, I'm horrified and ashamed, and quite surprised that it did," he wrote, unaware of an impending media firestorm.

From: Paul Ralston
To: Brian Jones
Sent: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 11:09 AM
Subject: Let's get them this weekend

Coach Jones,

I realize that I haven't gotten the opportunity to stand in front of you yet, to hold myself accountable, for what was a reckless and careless act on Saturday. I intend on doing so. I stopped by the Betty a couple times on Sunday, but didn't see you there and yesterday I tried to come later in the day but my parking lot hadn't been blown out, yet and ended up getting stuck in the lot.

I will definitely need to say this in front you, at some point. But as you are preparing to leave today, it probably will have to wait until you get back. Needless to say I'm disappointed in myself, but what I'm most disappointed in, in regards to my actions on Saturday is that I let you down, and disappointed you, first and foremost. And that has been the thing that hasn't sat well with me since, it occurred.

I don't like missing games, but I understand the repercussions, and can live with them. But, what really troubles me about this is that I let you down, broke your trust and that is what I am very, very truly sorry for. I also let your staff down, and the team and that is something that makes me truly disappointed in myself. If you require, I will issue a sincere apology to all parties you deem necessary, your staff, the team. I am more than willing to do so.

I'm not saying this because this made the paper, in fact, I'm horrified and ashamed, and quite surprised that it did. But again, my actions were what caused it and for that I am truly sorry, and can handle the ramifications.

Finally, have a great weekend of basketball. What a great opportunity and challenge. Our team is so tough, I just know they're going to play great in what is going to be a couple of big road tests.

I am your guy, despite me being a knucklehead last Saturday— That won't change and I will work extremely hard to earn your trust and be diligent in making sure that situation will never repeat itself again.

Thanks again coach, and I look forward to visiting with you soon.

Paul Ralston
Director of Broadcast Properties, University of North Dakota-Athletics. Play by Play Radio Voice- UND Men's basketball

An hour and a half later, Jones emailed him back for the first time:

From: Brian Jones
To: Paul Ralston
Sent: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 12:42 PM
Subject: RE: Let's get them this weekend

Paul-

Sorry I have not gotten back to you. We will work through this no doubt. A chance for growth for me and you. The bottom line is I love your passion. I am passionate too and learning how to control this is not always an easy task for me. But, I would rather have people on my team/staff who have passion than those who do not.

Our journey is hard, the only way to break through in this battle is to have passion!!!! The goal is to make sure the passion is targeted at the same goal. Making our program, university, community and support staff look like a million bucks even if there are bumps along the way. There are a lot of arm chair QB's out there, and if coaching, playing and announcing were that easy we would have a lot more people in the profession. It's not for the weak hearted or thin skinned so we have to build a united front together. All guns pointing out.

We are a family here, I am not turning my back on you or anyone else. We have a change to grow and that is how I am handling it.

See you next week. And do not beat yourself over this!!!!!!!

In temporary exile, Ralston couldn't have been more helpful to his replacement. He showed him how to upload his audio clips. He walked him through filling out the worksheets. He wrote the commercial "live reads" for him. In all, Ralston comes off as a nice guy who was content not to question his "choke job" punishment.

On Wednesday, the Associated Press—under the headline "ND ANNOUNCER SUSPENDED AFTER SAYING 'CHOKE JOB'"—piggybacked off the Grand Forks Herald's story. And then things exploded. Media outlets including ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo, USA Today, and CBS Sports picked up the local story. Glenn Beck's The Blaze published a post called "The reason this North Dakota sports announcer was suspended will leave you scratching your head." Barstool Sports, invoking George Carlin, wrote "the Pussification of America continues."

It's not hard to see why a small-bore local story held such national appeal. Here was a readymade symbol of political correctness run amok, the sensitivity goon squad trampling a man's right to speak his piece. Never mind that it was actually a story about a thin-skinned and entitled authority figure who objected—rightly, if for all the wrong reasons—to a broadcaster's trite and reductive tough-guy sports-radioese. It was simply a case of stupid sports thing vs. stupid sports thing.

Some on the Grand Forks Herald staff didn't understand why the story had blown up. On Wednesday evening, sports reporter Tom Miller wrote:

UND men's basketball play-by-play radio announcer Paul Ralston is a university employee and more importantly an extension of the public relations staff. I was baffled when the story of Ralston being suspended two games for his comments following last Saturday's loss to Northern Arizona went viral, landing on the front pages of the Sports Illustrated and ESPN web sites.

On the other hand, Herald columnist Virg Foss wrote a piece agreeing with the university. From his column, entitled "Don't bite the hand that feeds you":

In retirement, I cover UND hockey for the school's sports information web site, reporting on all home games. I get paid a token amount to do so.

As a UND employee, even on a limited basis, my coverage differs from when I reported for the Herald.

I am careful not to make critical or disparaging comments on my articles for UND. It is my responsibility to report the games accurate for UND, but certainly without damaging comments.

I understand that and it's why I understand Ralston went over the line with his "choke job" on-air remark...

Faison, the AD, stayed mum throughout the controversy. He finally chimed in on Thursday, responding to a local banker who emailed to congratulate him on suspending Ralston.

From: Bill Lee
To: Brian Faison
Sent: February 19, 2013 1:11 PM

I just saw where you suspended Paul Ralston for his interview with Brian after Saturdays game. Congratulations!! I heard the interview and was livid with Paul for the way he talked to Brian about the team. You did the right thing and should be commended for it. You continue to do a great job. Bill

From: Brian Faison
To: Bill Lee
Sent: Thursday, February 21, 2013 12:18
Subject: Need Two?

Bill:

Thank you for your support. Interesting how this has turned into a political issue for some people when nothing could be further from the truth. But, an old journalism adage certainly applies - don't let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Bottom line, he made a mistake and crossed a line that could not go unaddressed.

I enjoy Paul's passion and his energy in the broadcasts. I believe he has learned from this and understands how to handle this type of situation in the future.

In the meantime, do you need two?

Brian Faison

Director of Athletics University of North Dakota

"Need two" refers to comped tickets.

When the story went national, UND's athletic department was flooded with emails. One came from Idaho State's sports media relations guy, Steve Schaack. He emailed Ralston's temporary replacement, Kyle Doperalski, about dealing with his own broadcasters:

From: Steven Schaack
To: Kyle Doperalski
Sent: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 2:09 PM
Subject: Hello

Kyle How's it going? So I have to ask you, I saw an article about suspending your mens basketball announcer for two games. Which if what I read was accurate then I completely agree with the move. One thing fail to realize (just my opinion here) is that if you are an employee of the school then you have to be careful with what you say.

Just curious on the thought process that went into the decision. I understand some things are confidential so I don't expect you to share everything but I deal with some radio issues here and have had several "Come to Jesus" meetings with my guys.

It always helps seeing how other people do things.

Steve -

Steve Schaack Idaho State Athletic Media Relations

Most emails to Faison, Jones, and other administrators were not so favorable. Some blamed the school and the "liberal media," while others claimed it was hypocritical for a school formerly nicknamed the Fighting Sioux to take offense to comments like "choke job."

From: Tom Bridgeford
To: Brian Faison
Sent: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 5:00 PM
Subject: Suspension of Men's Basketball Announcer

Mr. Faison, I don't know whether Mr. Ralston was suspended for two games using what he deemed to be an inappropriate phrase or being too critical of the "home team". Those are the only two rationales I can come up with, and both are an embarrassment to the University of North Dakota (of which I am an alumni). Anyone with an ounce of common sense would believe that "choke job" isn't offensive, so I would really hope that was the rationale. That only leaves the comment having been deemed too critical of the team. Are you serious? You run a division one athletic program and you feel the need to suspend an announcer for having been too critical of the team he covers? In today's age of all home team announcers being homers, its refreshing that one is willing to make critical remarks about the school they cover. Instead, you decide to suspend him? What kind of precedent does that set? Are all announcers required to take a vow of loyalty to the school they cover and never offer up a critical viewpoint? What's next? Will newspapers and blogs be admonished for coverage that doesn't meet your standards? I don't know whether or not Mr. Ralston is employed by the school, but assuming he is it is laughable that you would punish an employee for not turning a blind eye to the terrible finish to that basketball game.

The message you have sent is terribly misguided and has brought embarrassment upon UND from a national viewpoint.

Tom Bridgeford

From: Mark Odor
To: Brian Faison
Sent: Wednesday February 20, 2013 4:13 PM
Subject: Paul Ralston

Your suspension of play-by-play announcer is liberal media and political correctness at its finest. Where I come from, sports commenters are allowed to interject critical analysis of a team instead of being a babysitter. This reeks of control from the higher-ups and should not be stood for. I'm 5'2" and could probably make ⅕ free throws. I also have four years of college eligibility left.

Best,

—Mark Odor
Read my NASCAR commentary at http://www.speedwaymedia.com "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." 2 Timothy 4:7 (NIV)

From: Kevin Flood
To: Brian Faison
Sent: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 3:06 PM
Subject: You're a joke!

As the athletic director of the program with the most insensitive mascot in the country (Fighting Sioux), you have no place suspending an announcer for "choke job." How is that statement even bad?

From: Sam Gibbs
To: Brian Faison, Brian Jones

Sent: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 2:41 PM
Subject: Question about men's basketball

Faison and Jones:

Sports fans across the U.S. want to know if Paul Ralston was suspended because the AD has his head so deep in the gutter that he can turn any comment into sexual innuendo or if it's because the coach needs a diaper change.

Coming from a school with a racist mascot, it's hard to imagine anything Ralston said could be so offensive to garner a two game suspension.

Clean up that den of debauchery you call a mind or pat the coach's little tushy and tell him to put on his big boy pants.

Either way, stop embarrassing yourselves and put Ralston back on the air. A rap on the wrist might be in order but suspension is ludicrous.

Sam Gibbs

Intelligent sports fan who can't believe this utter nonsense

From: Kim Anderson
To: Brian Faison
Sent: Thursday, February 21, 2013 9:26 AM
Subject: Suspension

As a loyal and giving (MONEY) UND alum I am totally appalled by the suspension of the Radio play by play person. I can't believe you think you can be so CONTROLLING over a very TRUTHFUL comment. I think the coach and team can handle the truth and build on it to be better in games to come - You better think more about your actions and allow people to think for themselves. They can handle it and will grow as a result. Try to think about your history of actions and comments in your career and think about all the times you could have been suspended or fired. You labeled the announcer and really brought more of a negative connotation to the school and you - NOT HIM. As a UND alum and I am proud of our school and trying to get over losing our mascot. I DON"T want to read about this stupid action you took on websites around the nation and accross the globe. I will let the president know about my displeasure also. Get your head out of your ass and concentrate on more important issues...... you just cost more requites——- than you tried to protect with your STUPID action.... your a dumbass!!!!!!

From: Todd Berge
To: Brian Faison
Sent: Thursday, February 21, 2013 9:45 AM
Subject: choke job

Seriously? I'm assuming the suspension was your decision. Is that correct?

Todd Berge

Kedney Moving Center Agent, Atlas Van Lines

From: Todd Green
To: Brian Faison
Sent: Thursday, February 21, 2013 12:19PM
Subject: Report: 'Choke job' remark leads to suspension

Hi Brian,

I am emailing you today to express my dismay and dumbfoundedness as to why you have suspended your radio play-by-play announcer for his "choke job" comment. See below for link to article I am referencing.

The University of North Dakota has suspended men's basketball radio play-by-play announcer Paul Ralston after he called the team's overtime loss to Northern Arizona on Saturday a "choke job."

http://www.foxsportsnorth.com/02/20/13/Repor...

Whatever happened to universities being "bastions of free speech?" We all know that is a lie as it is only tolerated if it is politically correct and / or agree with the left-wing agenda. Whatever happened to individuals in sports having thick skins? The individuals on the receiving end of this comment should look deep into the comment and ask themselves if it truly is unfair.

Also, the punishment you meted out is ridiculous. But then again, in a university environment and individuals with authority like to exercise that power from time to time. You should ashamed of yourself.

Also, I am not an alum of your university, but a fan of sports and suspending Paul Ralston is laughable. Please re-consider this mistake.

Sincerely,

Todd Green

From: Steve Fulkrod
To: Patricia Bohnet
Sent: Thursday, February 21, 2013 3:03 PM
Subject: North Dakota suspends play-by-play man for calling loss a ‘choke job'

I saw this on Yahoo and I can't believe your university did this.

Please let your president know I think this is overkill.

What ever happened to free speech on college campus?

Steve Fulkrod

From: Derek Atwood
To: Brian Jones
Sent: Thursday, February 21 2013 4:09 PM
Subject: Controversy

Hello Mr. Jones,

I am sure you are getting a lot of feedback on the choke job situation. You may never read this, but I would like to offer my viewpoint. First, I admire this upsetting you because it means you care. I'm also sure that if given the opportunity, you would handle it differently.

I would imagine that you probably agree that it was a choke job. That does not mean the announcer should have said it in those terms. The perfect response I would want as a fan or one of your players would be for the coach to take the heat in public. If players need to be punished that is a private matter. But, a coach who takes the responsibility for losses and gives the glory for wins is the guy guy people want to go to battle with.

You probably don't care, but for what it's worth, the only way for you, your team, and your university to look best would be for you to come out with the announcer and both apologize. He for his lack of judgment and you for an overreaction due to your intensity and desire to defend your players. Then, direct this as a tool of motivation for you and your players. The announcer looks fine. You look like a standup guy and the focus is back on basketball.

Sincerely, Derek Atwood

From: Brandon Lee
To: Brian Faison
Sent: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 7:44PM
Subject: "Choke job"

You sir are a moron! Suspending a man for saying a team choked in the final minutes, are you kidding me?! You are everything that is wrong with society! Petty little things are suspension worthy? I remember in the constitution of the United States that we have freedom of speech! Nowhere in there does it say "freedom of speech, unless it offends some arrogant, self indulgent asshol"! Reinstate this man immediately, or be made a fool forever! Everyone makes mistakes, so you will be forgive, but leave this man alone he never made one!

From: Blake Johnson
To: Brian Faison
Sent: Thursday, February 21, 2013 7:49 AM

I have been around the University for 50 years and I have never seen a more embarrassing and ridiculous decision than your's to suspend Paul Ralston.

The fact that you have "no comment" on a story that has blown up nationally is such a coward move.

Blake

Jayson Hajdu, the UND flack, told us the national attention was overblown.

"People are going to take sides on an issue like that," Hajdu said, "and many still would have taken Paul's side with some context, but there wasn't any context whatsoever, just those two words and it's just another case, perception-wise, of a university or athletic department being too thin-skinned."

The story eventually petered out. The PC-oppressed moved on to something else. Ralston served his time and returned a chastened man. Stupid vs. stupid, and the guy who made more money won. Anyone rummaging through the scandal for a symbol of American decline should probably begin there.