I love Clay Bennett.
How could I not love a man who gets more hate mail and calls than I do?
During this holiday season, let me publicly give thanks that Clay is our editorial cartoonist - a noble but diminishing profession whose ranks have dropped to about 70 nationwide (even though there are 1,400 daily newspapers).
Clay is the only journalist on this staff who allows me to play good cop every now and again.
His Wednesday 'toon denoting a pregame drill - a field-sobriety test - being administered to the Signal Mountain High football players drew an acidic response from Signal residents, while most non-mountain folk found it hysterical (as did some of the Signal football players themselves, by the way).
The cartoon followed two news stories about an underage drinking incident involving some of Signal's football players a few days before they won the state title. What gave the story more steam was the fact that sheriff's deputies cited but did not arrest the players, giving rise to claims of favoritism. The school's response also was not stellar: The head coach first denied the incident before admitting he knew about it. The principal alleged a "cover-up" but then retracted the word in the face of criticism.
Clay and I spent the better part of last week fielding phone calls and e-mails from incensed Eagles fans. The sardonic Clay finally wrote me, "From now on, I'm sticking to religion and politics, because drawing cartoons about high school football teams gets you nothing but grief!"
My favorite call was from a woman who asked me, "Who is this Bennett character anyway?" To which I responded: "He's our Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist. And he IS a character." Said she, "I don't care what he's won." Then she hung up, but not before calling me a seven-letter name that starts with an "a."
Many of our critics decried our perceived mountain-out-of-a-molehill coverage of the underage drinking incident. The truth is, though, we've given Signal a mountain load of coverage all football season - right up until the last game, during which we handed to fans 5,000 copies of a mock front page heralding the Eagles' state title and the fact that no high school team in Tennessee history had won a football championship that quickly (the school opened three years ago).
No doubt these football players have more than paid for their indiscretion. Underage drinking is not a cardinal sin but a rite of passage. And I'll never understand why you must be 21 to drink but can die for your country at 18.
I'm not going to climb atop the First Amendment soapbox and explain why editorial cartoonists are supposed to be provocative and how their bosses must ensure they remain unfettered and uncensored.
I will tell you that some Signal Mountain residents (and many staffers at this newspaper live there, too) have confided in me that a few of their neighbors have developed a sense of entitlement and arrogance - to the point of not only looking down on the rest of us literally, but now figuratively.
These few are used to the old Chattanooga Times Free Press, the one with a sordid history of coddling our community's sacred cows. The operative word is "history." Those days are over.
The Signal Mountain players caught up in this mess are more than "God-fearing, good Christians," as some callers have touted. Some of them reportedly weren't drinking at all. Many others who were drinking fled into the woods right before law enforcement arrived.
Clay's cartoon was less an indictment of these boys than it was of adults and how they responded to this incident. The cartoon also was just plain funny. The problem is that many of us have forgotten how to laugh.