News & Features Feedback
New This WeekAround TownMusicFilmArtTheaterNews & FeaturesFood & DrinkAstrology

  E-Mail This Article to a Friend
Jurassic Jock (continued)


Lisa and Reggie

Will McDonough was never inclined to believe Lisa Olson’s tale. He claims that shortly after the story exploded, he heard from his friend Bill Parcells — then the coach of the New York Giants, now the Patriots coach — that one of the Patriots accused of sexually harassing her, ex-Giant Zeke Mowatt, was not the kind of guy to do such a dastardly deed. McDonough learned from Mowatt’s agent that the player had passed a lie-detector test, and he publicized those results. He also claims that several team owners told him commissioner Tagliabue had informed them that the incident had been blown out of proportion. McDonough passed that on to his readers as well. For the record, he says he made several attempts to contact Olson, and that she rebuffed him.

"The only thing that bothered me is that the Globe took the choke on me," says McDonough, referring to the paper’s initial coverage, which was highly supportive of Olson.

An official league report essentially confirmed Olson’s story, and she collected $250,000 from the Patriots in an out-of-court settlement. But McDonough feels vindicated by the Globe’s June 1992 second look at the case. Compiled by reporters Larry Tye and Ron Borges, the report cast aspersions on Olson’s credibility and chastised the media for their initial handling of the incident. McDonough claims that at that point, Globe sports editor Don Skwar — one of those faulted by Borges and Tye — admitted to him, "You were right."

Today, some still speculate over what really happened. There are whispers that the official league report tilted to Olson to avoid taking the political heat that might have been generated if she’d been discredited. Others, though, think McDonough’s been anything but vindicated.

"The report painted a scenario that was much grimmer than what Lisa had described," says a still-angry Bob Sales, who believes that report was a clear vindication for Olson. "If someone put in a fix, I don’t know anything about it and I don’t believe it’s true." League spokesman Greg Aiello acknowledges that the penalties were collected from only one of the three players originally fined by the league, but says tersely: "The report speaks for itself."

Olson, who moved to Australia — where she now works as a sportswriter — to escape from the stress caused by the high-profile incident, declined to comment publicly about McDonough when recently reached by the Phoenix.

If McDonough outraged many with his treatment of Olson, he raised additional hackles with his July 30, 1993, column on the death of Reggie Lewis.

"There is a possible time bomb in the Reggie Lewis story," he wrote of a pending toxicology report. "This report will reveal if there were any drugs involved at the time of his death." Sure, there’d been street gossip about the possible role of drugs in the death of the popular 27-year-old athlete. But no one had publicly aired them, and an exhaustive Globe report on Lewis’s death this past September apparently failed to turn up any publishable evidence.

Uncharacteristically sensitive to the instant furor he’d created, McDonough followed his July 30 column a week later by pointing out that before his death, Lewis’s "friend and adviser" and "fellow black" Jimmy Myers had raised the drug issue during a May radio interview, conducted shortly after Lewis collapsed during a playoff game. Problem was, Myers asked Lewis how it felt to have doctors repeatedly ask him about drug use even though "you’ve never taken drugs in your life" — a far different spin from McDonough’s.

Contacted by the Phoenix, the usually bombastic Myers declined to comment on McDonough’s treatment of his close friend, stating only that "anything I’d say now adds fuel to a fire that’s out. The only thing that would come out are some feelings for Will — and I don’t think this is the time or place for it."

McDonough somewhat disingenuously sticks by his Lewis column, insisting, "It was supposed to be a story about what happened at the autopsy. . . . I didn’t say the guy used drugs." But the implication was clear. And when pressed on the subject, McDonough warns pugnaciously, "It’s a good thing I liked Reggie Lewis, and nobody better get me bugged about Reggie Lewis or I might work on it a little further."

Others looking for insight into the McDonough psyche should take note of his item this past October 23 cheering the Houston Oilers for docking David Williams $110,000 for missing a game to be with his wife when she delivered their first child. Though Williams probably could have been on hand for the delivery and still made the opening kickoff, many people lauded him as an enlightened dad who had his priorities straight. Not McDonough.

"Why reward him for stiffing his team and his teammates?" he wrote.

In the same column, McDonough also blasted the Chicago Bulls for paying a $1 million prize to a man who hit a three-quarter-court shot during a contest. Fans all over the country were warmed by the widely replayed scene of the winner, a young African-American, celebrating with the Bulls players after making the miracle heave. But McDonough declared foul on the grounds that the contestant had violated a rule prohibiting anyone who’d played college basketball from participating. Though technically true, his criticism has a real "bah, humbug" tone.

"They had to do the politically correct thing," says a disapproving McDonough, assailing both the Bulls’ decision to pay the man and his "high-fiving bullshit" with the players after he sunk the shot.

There is surely a philosophical, if not ideological, pattern that flows through these issues. Skepticism about the woman in the men’s locker room. A suspicion that a young African-American heart-disease victim had to be indulging in drugs. No sympathy for the jock who picks bonding over blocking. And no empathetic thrill for the little guy who wins the jackpot.

Have we found the Rush Limbaugh of the sports world?

No, insists Upton Bell, who says his old pal is "an original thinker. . . . The only thing you can connect to the past is that he feels performers are ripping people off, that an athlete makes two or three million dollars a year and he goes into the tank."

Go to the source

About a year ago, shortly after the political logjam broke and legislation paving the way for a new Boston Garden passed, McDonough wrote a classically hubristic column. In it, he described how phone conversations he had with Garden owner Jeremy Jacobs and Billy Bulger helped pave the way for a deal. Not only was McDonough flaunting his role as power broker — a dubious function for a journalist — he was letting the world know that key players like Jacobs and Bulger had his name in their Rolodexes.

"Unlike the rest of us, he can pick up the phone and get an answer, whether it’s [Red Sox owner] John Harrington, Billy Bulger, or the governor," says Upton Bell.

How did McDonough get to rub elbows with these guys? In many cases, tennis was his entree. Take Red Auerbach, who was looking for a playing partner as he began easing his Celtic workload.

"He thought he was gonna kick my ass. I beat him, he couldn’t believe it, and then it became a challenge for him," McDonough recalls. He became tight with football luminaries like Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula and ex-San Francisco 49ers and current Stanford coach Bill Walsh by arranging tennis tourneys during league confabs.

Dave Smith, the former Globe sports editor, says McDonough’s also a world-class schmoozer with "a knack for winning people over and gaining their confidence. Unlike a lot of people, he was never intimidated."

"He would just go through his numbers and call about 15 people a day," recalls Leigh Montville, who’s an admirer of his ex-colleague. "He would get one gem of information and barter for another gem of information, and then he’d have two gems of information."

Effective as McDonough’s way of doing business with the rich and famous may be — complete with his trademark "Hey, big guy" salutation — it is limited and distorting.

"He’s good in that he’ll certainly represent management’s side," says the Herald’s Jim Baker. "But if you’re looking for a complete picture, you won’t get it from him." Or as Sales puts it: "If our role is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, he’s got it screwed up."

McDonough’s work is often filled with the musings of owners, general managers, and league officials. What’s usually missing are the men who play the game, primarily because it’s hard to image this guy who’s pushing 60 enjoying the boom-box-blaring clubhouse scene and mixing it up with athletes less than half his age.

The typical result is his January 8 column on the NFL playoffs, which featured the exclusive opinions of three coaches and two general mangers. Or the January 15 column on the Raiders-Bills playoff game that began with Al Davis’s pronouncements on how his team would perform on Buffalo’s frozen carpet. No turf-burned wretches need apply.

Aside from McDonough’s minimal interest in the players, his reliance on a tight circle of sources and friends ensures a predictable viewpoint with few shades of gray. Billy Bulger is invariably a good guy, as is Bill Parcells. Billy Sullivan could do no right. His most recent foil has been Walter Metcalfe, the adviser for outgoing Pats owner James Orthwein, both of whom McDonough portrayed as threats to Western civilization even for contemplating moving the Patriots to St. Louis.

"He’s always been on one side or the other," says Montville. "I guess it’s no different than political reporters. The conservatives will all tell William Buckley what’s going on."

Others have a darker view.

"There are numerous instances in which McDonough’s personal animosity has interfered with his objectivity," says Pat Sullivan.

"He only publishes what’s going to reinforce his sources, his friends, his contacts," adds one journalist. "Then he becomes much more of a political figure than a sports figure."

The 800-pound gorilla

McDonough certainly sounded like a political figure when he led the January 11 sports section with a column warning legislators to "forget your petty provincial bull and do something that is good for everyone. Vote for the megaplex."

As a columnist, McDonough’s certainly entitled to his opinion on the controversial $700 million project, which would consist of a convention center and a 70,000-seat football stadium. What’s disconcerting is that, given an obvious bias, he’s also been reporting on the immensely complicated issue, allegedly sorting fact from fiction.

McDonough’s sleuthing skills didn’t seem to hold him in good stead during the fast-moving, confusing Patriots-sale story, which finally came to a head on January 21, when Foxboro Stadium owner Bob Kraft announced he was buying the team, thus precluding any move to St. Louis, and putting megaplex plans on hold.

Even though McDonough considers himself a close friend of Kraft’s — he emceed the man’s 50th-birthday party — McDonough’s January 21 Globe story not only failed to predict the imminent Kraft purchase, it also it offered the tangential information that Boston Garden owner Jeremy Jacobs — never really a player in the deal — had formally taken himself out of the bidding. And the next day, old foe Jim Baker took a shot at McDonough for telling talkmeister Don Imus on WEEI’s morning show only hours before the Kraft purchase was announced that the team was going to St. Louis.

"So much for McSclusive," gloated a clearly delighted Baker.

"No one got it alone," insists Skwar, defending McDonough’s less-than-sterling performance. "And if anyone would have, it would have been Will."

Moving freely between proffering opinions and writing news stories on the same sensitive issue harks back to Mike Barnicle’s controversial role during the Chuck and Carol Stuart murder case. Like Barnicle, McDonough hasn’t been afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom at the paper. No surprise, then, that both men share the same sobriquet inside Morrissey Boulevard — "800-pound gorilla."

"He’s written a lot of things in the paper that no one else could," says one observer. Given the Reggie Lewis allegation or the Lisa Olson columns that implicitly criticized his co-workers — particularly Mike Madden, who was Olson’s staunchest supporter — one senses that McDonough is a tough hombre whom the sheriff, or in this case editor, wouldn’t even think of trying to disarm.

"Both Dave Smith and Vince Doria [Smith’s successor and Skwar’s predecessor as sports editor] have proclaimed . . . that Willie is the most valuable performer on the staff," says Bob Ryan. "The editors have been addicted to access, which is understandable. This is a classic old-fashioned newspaper person. He obviously gets his jollies getting it in the paper before anyone else. . . . It’s up to each individual paper and editor to decide how that’s valued, exclusive of any other aspect."

Pat Sullivan says his family used to try to arrange meetings with publisher Bill Taylor to complain about McDonough’s coverage. "The sense that I always got from the Globe is they didn’t want to lose McDonough," he says. "And they basically gave him a lot of free rein."

Officially, and not surprisingly, that’s disputed by three generations of Globe sports editors.

"Like a lot of talented people, he was tough to deal with," says Dave Smith. But he insists there were no serious problems.

"For me, he was great to work with," adds Doria, now the managing editor of espn2, who calls the 800-pound-gorilla theory "bullshit. As far as Willie determining policy at the paper — it didn’t happen then and I don’t think it happens now."

"He’s not given any longer leash than anyone else," echoes Skwar. "The thing that goes untold here is Will’s ability to get sources who can fill him in on this."

Whatever his status on Morrissey Boulevard, McDonough likes to proclaim himself king of the jungle within Boston’s sports-journalism fraternity. Take this Phoenix interview from nearly six years ago, when he was under attack for his jihad against Billy Sullivan. "They got no access to Pete Rozelle, Donald Trump," he said dismissively of his rivals. "I got access to all these guys. They have to play to the Sullivans ‘cause they got nowhere else to go for their information."

Though that attitude tends to create more of those enemies McDonough says he craves, Ron Hobson claims "he doesn’t take himself seriously, although other people take him seriously. He’s far more interested in his family and other things."

McDonough, who has three children from his first marriage and two young children by his second wife, says he wants out in four years.

"I just want to go out and play golf and not bother anybody anymore," he adds.

It’s hard to think of McDonough not wanting to bother anyone anymore. And for however long he sticks around, he is sure to infuriate his enemies in the sports world, the journalistic-ethics police, and, to use the term he invokes so disparagingly, the politically correct.

Like his buddy Billy Bulger — and a generation of Southie tough guys — McDonough is indeed one of those straggling holdouts from an earlier day whose fist remains clenched on the levers of power in this town.

Says McDonough: "You can write on my tombstone, ‘He never gave in.’ "

This article originally ran in the Phoenix on January 26, 1994.

page 1  page 2 

Issue Date: January 26, 1994
Back to the News & Features table of contents.
  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

home | feedback | about the phoenix | find the phoenix | advertising info | privacy policy | the masthead | work for us

 © 2003 Phoenix Media Communications Group