Ten years ago: The USA Today ‘Blue Ball’ brouhaha

NEW: USA Today uses a blue ball for its new logo.

They were dubbed “The Blue Ball Three.”

USA Today sports department staffers Karen Allen; Denise Tom, and Cheryl Phillips were fired 10 years ago this week after scrawling “Kilroy was here” with their fingers on a Lita Albuquerque sculpture near the offices of then-Gannett CEO Douglas McCorkindale.

“Everyone is horrified,” a USA Today staffer told Howard Kurtz for his Dec. 5, 2001 Washington Post story. “Everyone is thinking this is an insane, ego-related firing.”

Even the artist was stunned by the dismissals: “Oh my God! Are you kidding?” Albuquerque told Kurtz. “This is crazy! I think it’s a terrible thing, firing people from a lifetime job for what is essentially graffiti.” A legal defense fund (“The Blue Journalists Fund”) was started, and USA Today staffers pledged to boycott the newspaper’s Christmas party.

My letters page was filled with protests from journalists.

Helen Kennedy of the New York Daily News wrote:

The USA Today firings are simply flabbergasting. I’ve spent years boring people with rants about the toxic decline of fun in the newsroom, and how much more delightful work used to be in the days of yore when there were colorful fistfights over women, banter that would now be considered harassment and delirious watergun battles on deadline, but this is taking the insurance-office ethos to a whole new level. Somebody wrote “Kilroy Was Here” with their fingertip in DUST? Was there even a sign saying keep off the dust? What’s the penalty for magic-markering clever limericks about the publisher in the toilets? Execution?

Gail Gedan Spencer wrote in her letter:

Re: the firing of the USA Today staffers: Good thing they haven’t fired anyone who had ever stuck pennies in the eyes of the Al Neuharth bust — there’d be no one left. (Is that still at the HQ? I haven’t been there since the late ’80s — when I stuck pennies in the eyes.)

Daryl Lease, then with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, sent me his “Top 10 back-up protests at USA Today, just in case the Christmas party boycott doesn’t work” for posting on the Romenesko MediaNews letters page:

10. Begin answering the phones with a chipper “USA YESTERDAY”!
9. Connect all the paper clips on management’s desks.
8. File stories six, maybe even seven, paragraphs long.
7. Start a rumor that the paper is really owned by Moonies.
6. Refuse to write a lead or headline in the first person plural, except in extreme polling emergencies.
5. Switch the office decaf to caffeine, and the caffeine to decaf.
4. Start a rumor that the paper is really owned by Tony Ridder.
3. Three words: Black and white graphics.
2. Stage a marathon reading of Al Neuharth columns in the lobby.

And the No. 1 back-up protest, in case the Christmas party boycott doesn’t work…

1. Add ellipses to the sculpture and blame the whole thing on a disgruntled Larry King.

Gannett CEO McCorkindale never discussed the Blue Ball firings, but his spokeswoman told American Journalism Review that there had been “an act of vandalism involving a piece of artwork at Gannett headquarters…it was investigated, there were security tapes. Criminal charges were considered, [but] we’re not going to do that.”

In that same AJR piece, Linda Mathews — then USA Today’s cover story editor — said that what the women did to the sculpture “was stupid and thoughtless, but it wasn’t malevolent.” The three dismissed staffers, she said, were “not troublemakers, and they’re very conscientious.”

Mathews added:

“I would have thought that everything we knew about their character would’ve been taken into account before they were fired.”

What the Blue Ball Three are doing now: Denise Tom is Program Associate at California Community Foundation, according to LinkedIn, and Cheryl Phillips is Seattle Times Data Enterprise Editor. I couldn’t locate Karen Allen. (Anyone know? Contact me at jim@jimromenesko.com)

UPDATE: Lisa Hoffman tells me — “Happy to say Karen Allen is alive and well and living in a house she’s building in Colorado. After her firing, Scripps Howard News Service was lucky enough to hire her. She was the features editor with us for about five years, then left to bag it all and move to the mountains. She now is a freelance editor for SHNS, working virtually, and, again, we’re thrilled to have her.”

* Read more Blue Ball Three-related letters (Note: The Wayback Machine pauses a few seconds before going to the letters page)