Upon reflection, Utah, all apologies offered
By Woody Paige
Denver Post Sports Columnist
Thursday, February 14, 2002 - SALT LAKE CITY - Happy Valentine's Day, Utahans. I love you.
I'm sorry I hurt you.
A column I wrote that appeared Tuesday in The Denver Post has enraged members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and officials of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, Winter Olympics volunteers, the decent people of Utah, Colorado and, presumably, other states and countries and my superiors and fellow workers.
I was wrong to write what I did. I am totally responsible and regretful for it.
"Obviously, it has a satirical emphasis," said Mike Otterson, director of media relations for the Mormon Church headquarters here.
Obviously, it was satire that didn't work.
"It was a pretty mean-spirited piece," Otterson said Wednesday. He also said the column was "a hatchet job hostile designed to ridicule clearly intended to be an attack on Utah and Mormons so vicious invective ridiculous and downright wrong."
Thousands of others who e-mailed and called me and others at The Post weren't as kind in their evaluation.
When I contacted Otterson, I requested a conversation with church president Gordon Hinckley, but he, Otterson said, "respectfully, is too busy to handle this." So Otterson said he would serve as the senior spokesman.
I told him I am not anti-Mormon, anti-Utah, anti-Salt Lake City or anti-Winter Olympics. My weak attempt at humor failed. For those few who missed it, the basic premise of the column was that Colorado would be the real winner of the Games because "Salt Lake City has royally screwed up the Winter Olympics." But the main complaints were about references to Utahans and, specifically, Mormons, who make up 70-75 percent of this state's population.
"The overwhelming reaction from the world media, the athletes and the visitors has been extremely positive and that the Games are going off admirably well," said Otterson.
He wanted to concentrate on "issues of fact" regarding the church and Mormons.
"The line about worshipping salamanders and sea gulls obviously is one's expression of opinion. I don't know how to respond to that type of satire, but it's simply not true." He said African-Americans and women are not considered inferior by the church. "More than half the members of our church are now outside the United States in Latin America, Africa and the Philippines, for instance, and (the numbers are) growing faster. Only 14 percent of our members live in Salt Lake City.
"The stereotypical image of Mormons is changing."
The church took exception to my line that the Winter Olympics is a "massive Mormon marketing scheme."
According to Otterson, the church "has resources that Salt Lake City needed, and we have provided them willingly. If the church had boycotted the Games, the city could not have hosted the event. But president Hinckley has made it clear from the beginning that there would be no proselytizing (attempts to convert one to another's religious faith) during the Olympics. We are not handing out literature or selling books. We don't sell the Book of Mormon. To the contrary, the literature being passed out is anti-Mormon. The Mormon Temple is a highly visible presence in downtown, but no more than the Vatican in Rome. We are sensitive to the purpose of the Olympics."
He said the church has remained in the background throughout the Games. "Your inferences that the church is using the Games as a marketing scheme is downright wrong. Judging by the reaction, we've done it right and would do it exactly the same way if we started over."
He reiterated that the Mormon Church had "outlawed polygamy more than 100 years ago, and I've never met a polygamist."
There also was the mention of "weird underwear," which both Otterson and I agree was totally uncalled for.
As for transportation, traffic, ticketing, access to the venues and other problems brought up in the column, Otterson said a Salt Lake Organizing Committee official would have to comment. However late Wednesday afternoon, SLOC said it would have no statement.
Aside from some transportation and traffic snafus and inconveniences for athletes and spectators, the Winter Games in Salt Lake City and surrounding Utah have been very successful - and certainly safe and secure.
Sincerely, I've enjoyed my stay as a bystander. Utah can be proud of its Olympian effort so far.
I've been here and at other locales in Utah 50 times or more and genuinely like the people. As has been noted this week, Salt Lake has become "the capital of niceness." I don't understand the infatuation with Jell-O or fry sauce, but I appreciate "friendly." Maybe we should all eat more Jell-0 and fry sauce.
I have studied the history of the state and the church. I have read the Book of Mormon, and I have toured the Temple grounds.
Honestly, I am not against Utahans and Mormons, just as I am not, despite what they believe, against Nebraskans and Cornhuskers.
Sometimes I want to be funny, and I offend people.
The column was not intended to be a vicious, hostile attack, but, upon reflection and rereading what I wrote, it went over the line of propriety.
This country was founded on principles of freedom of religion and speech, and both are to be respected. I did not.
I am not writing this column under duress or threat. It's my choice and responsibility.
I apologize to Mormons, to Utahans, to a dedicated employee of The Post who is "embarrassed," to everyone at the newspaper who has endured the wrath I caused, to my mother and sister for when I've poked fun at Southern Baptists and to anyone else I angered or annoyed.
Be My Valentine.