The sports magazine published an article last week on Anthony O’Dell “Speedy” Cannon, a Jacksonville High football player who died as a result of a late hit during a 1972 game against Wellborn.
The author of “The Ghost of Speedy Cannon: How race and recollection still frame an Alabama football fatality 40 years later,” SI’s Thomas Lake, begins by sharing an astounding assertion. It came via an email written by a player on the ’72 Jacksonville team, Dr. Andy Lamb, who now lives in North Carolina.
Lamb claims that Cannon, an African-American, was deliberately targeted by Wellborn players and coaches because of his race and that the Wellborn team was in some way culpable in the player’s death.
“When I heard the story last year, I went to Alabama to see if it was true,” Lake writes. “What I found was complicated.”
You bet it was.
Lake’s reporting did not reveal a huge racial divide 40 years after the incident. The former Wellborn player penalized for the late hit on Cannon (who is unidentified in the article) did not greet Lake and his probing questions with hostility. The ex-player welcomed the SI writer into his home and was open about his recollections from the game.
Lake wrote, “It must be said: Every man I met from the ’72 Wellborn football program was generous with his time and assistance.”
Of course, the article includes different points of view, including from Cannon’s relatives who assert race played a major role in the hit and subsequent death.
Star columnist Joe Medley spoke Wednesday with Jim Farrell, a local businessman who covered the 1972 Wellborn-Jacksonville game for The Star.
“It just really troubles me, some of the accusations that were made about that incident, that unfortunate situation,” Farrell said. “I just didn’t see anything intentional, and I had a pretty good look at it, too.”
Medley’s column provided important context to this story.
Yet, I worry about the damage done to Wellborn’s reputation by the charges left to hang out in a national publication. Sports Illustrated numbers it readers in the millions. Until last week, I’d wager, the vast majority had never heard of Wellborn High School or Speedy Cannon or his tragic death.
They have now.
What’s worse, they’ve been introduced to an explosive allegation that is neither fully confirmed or denied.
Lake, the SI writer, appears to have addressed the issue with an open mind. However, he concludes of the role Wellborn — both its team and its fans — played in Cannon’s death:
“This is evil, but it does not amount to murder.”
He’s free to share his opinion, especially one informed by seeking out various perspectives. However, I’m wondering about the fairness of a national magazine raising this little-known episode only to merely let the allegation hang in the air.
Wellborn, the school and the community, had racial problems in its past, the sort that can be easily verified. However, those events weren’t in question in the SI article. Instead, a far more serious charge is presented: That Cannon was targeted and ultimately died because of his race.
Wellborn deserves better than raising this inflammatory allegation only to leave readers uncertain of its validity.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: EditorBobDavis.