I have a friend who calls me every time he sees something in the St. Petersburg Times he deems offensive to blacks.
I call him the Times' unofficial African-American ombudsman.
We have spirited but friendly debates about the coverage of certain stories and the inclusion of specific photos. We talk as much about where editors place a story in the paper as we do its content. Sometimes, I agree with his observations. Sometimes I don't.
The funny thing is the greater the offense, in his mind, the earlier he will call.
Last Friday, my cellphone buzzed at 7:23 a.m.
The package that appeared on the front of this regional section last week featured three stories on high school graduates: two white and one black. The two white students decided to embark on overseas adventures after getting their diplomas.
The black student, Chamberlain High's Adrian White, told of how he simply would pursue a job after his dreams of playing college football got dashed by his lack of academic discipline and his failure to produce a qualifying score on admission tests. He offered he might someday attend a community college but lamented about not being more studious.
My friend saw the juxtaposition of the three stories as yet another negative slight against African-Americans, the kind he says are far too commonplace even in 2009. Why, he asked, would you have two successful white students stacked against the young black man who had fallen short? Doesn't it send a negative message to all the other young blacks trying to succeed?
Couldn't we have featured one of the many African-American students graduating with honors from county high schools this week?
He always says imagery and balance matter. He's not suggesting struggling whites haven't been portrayed in the media, but he says the stories of struggling blacks are amplified because they aren't proportionally balanced with stories of success.
Those are fair points. The Times as an institution and myself as a columnist must always be sensitive to how we portray people, particularly minorities. We must always remain receptive to constructive criticism. That's why I always take my friend's calls.
However, my perspective on the Adrian White story differed greatly from that of my friend. In my mind, staff writer Dong-Phuong Nguyen offered a cautionary tale for any aspiring athlete, regardless of race. It's the kind of article you show to your own kids to remind them that success on the field means nothing if you don't succeed in the classroom.
I also viewed White as a young man maturing before our very eyes. He spoke with candor about his regrets instead of making excuses. He embraced his errors and seemed determined to soldier on while cautioning his younger relatives not to stumble into the same pitfalls.
Most of all, the story read as a call to action to the community. Readers should address the issue instead of killing the messenger.
Sure, you could read those three stories and ask why the Times decided to tell this young black man's story. But at the same time, you could ask how do I help White and all the others who have gone down the same path of disappointment?
After all, while White's openness proved remarkable, his tale was not uncommon. Sadly, as an old prep sports writer, I know far too many athletes have ended promising athletic careers unfulfilled.
Interestingly, two people did call offering assistance. One was a father whose own athletically gifted son went through academic struggles before becoming a prosecutor. He thought he and his friends could help White get into school.
The other works for a company that has developed software to help athletes track their NCAA eligibility, and he also thought he could assist.
Two other nonprofits also specialize in this area. Tyrone Keys' All-Sports Community Service has helped more than 1,000 kids, athletes and nonathletes, further their education.
Romey Battle and Mike Brown also have aided athletes over the years working for various youth groups and now lead the upstart Center For Urban Programs. The center will have a summer leadership institute that can help young kids get on track long before they reach White's desperate situation.
I'm sure all of these groups would welcome helping hands.
Here's the ultimate question in this debate: Did the Times perpetuate a negative stereotype by contrasting White's plight against those of more successful white students? Or did we call attention to a pressing problem that can be solved with community involvement?
We will work on the first question, if you work on the second.
That's all I'm saying.