The Curious Case of Krissy Cox

Sara Peck

Approximately 30 students, including myself and an accomplice, are parked on the bleachers of Welsh-Ryan Arena watching the Wildcats take on (and later demolish) North Carolina A&T during the opening days of Winter Break. Turnout is understandably low. Cancelled flights and work obligations aside, everyone has gone home. The majority of the student body is pillaging the well-stocked refrigerators at home; purring under Mom’s warm affection and calling those once-upon-a-friends to muse about the highly-mature land of college. Those still lingering in Evanston are nursing the wounds from finals and wishing they were more body-conscious (then, at least they’d have a method of avoiding overweight baggage charges). Purple Pride is taking a well-deserved break.

It’s a stark contrast from the outcry when a Northwestern cheerleader, Krissy Cox, was publicly ridiculed for allegedly saying less-than-sunny things about NU’s athletic programs in an ESPN magazine article entitled “6 Things You should Know About Cheering for a Losing Team.” The slice-and-dice method used to create the list-style story removes the context, which makes Cox’s comments unflattering. “Since Northwestern isn’t known for sports, we do worry sometimes that our squad might get dissolved. Some big schools have already cut cheerleading.” But some parts of her interview are genuine, insightful and more tactile than cookie-cutter answers. “NU is competitive academically, and that environment can amplify the stigma attached to the intelligence of cheerleaders,” she says. Cox also talks about injuries suffered from bad stunting falls, and how grass is the best stage. Pretty innocuous stuff, if you read the whole interview through.

But the article couldn’t have had a more unfortunate timing: Only days before, Facebook exploded after the football team was picked over Wisconsin in the bowl pecking order to attend a coveted New Years’ Day bowl game in Tampa, Fla. the Outback Bowl. Flights were booked at holiday price premiums, and students made plans for intoxication and overstuffed hotel rooms. The razor-close game that granted the Cats far more than nine lives was regarded as some of the best ball NU has ever played, though they lost in overtime.

The days following ESPN’s release of the article caused a circus of reaction. Luke Liu, a sophomore, and Ryan Parks, another sophomore, created the Facebook group “Petition to get Krissy Cox kicked off the cheerleading team,” which was later re-humanized and re-titled to “NU students who disagree with Krissy Cox’s decision.” Someone reported the group, and it was taken down the next day. In the blogosphere, grown men called the girl a “dumb sl–” and patted themselves on the back for sending her Facebook messages asking “What were you thinking?” Somehow NU students and fans had reached a new level of tactlessness usually reserved for elitist key-jangling.

No one would deny that NU’s two major teams have found success despite recent adversity: After the tragic death of coach Randy Walker in 2006, the football team under coach Pat Fitzgerald has continued to shine without looking back. Even without its top player, Kevin Coble, the basketball team had to pick up the slack, and has so far been successful, carrying a 10-3 record. The team finally broke the Associate Press’ Top 25 poll, giving them the shiny title of a “ranked team.”

But NU fans haven’t made similar strides. Despite rampant absenteeism at non-football contests, students were quick to damn Cox without access to the article itself. ESPN doesn’t publish all of its magazine content online, and for unknown reasons, no copies could be found at CVS, Barnes & Noble or Main Street News. One-line quotes sandwiched together with heavy editorialization disseminated on listservs, Facebook and message boards. “At Northwestern being dumb, ignorant, blonde and plain means Krissy’s out of place,” wrote one angry commentator on the blog “Black Heart Gold Pants.” One NU student posted the following to his public Twitter account: “F— ESPN the Magazine. F— “Krissy Cox.” Both can suck a d—. And that sloot should be punched in the face immediately.” While eating dinner with a friend of mine, he said, “Did you hear that some cheerleader was trashing Northwestern in ESPN?” Had he read the article, I asked while paying for my fetus-sized burrito? No. Of course not.

Carrie (name has been changed) used to cheer for NU, and still keeps in touch with current squad members. She’s not blaming Cox who she says “genuinely would do so much for Northwestern,” or even the writer who may have chopped the interview irresponsibly. She still has a bad taste in her mouth from cheering to vacant bleachers for two years, and thinks NU students are the ones in the wrong. “It’s demoralizing to cheer to empty stands,” she says. “Cheering women’s basketball games was the worst experience of my life. It’s so awkward.There is no one there.”

The athletic department released an e-mail transcript of the interview with Cox, though the phone calls made between author Jake Zucker and Cox were never mentioned, ESPN spokespeople noted. NU quickly turned, blaming ESPN and pitying Cox as a poor girl taken of advantage of by the media, and now she isn’t talking. The athletic department must approve all interviews, and they’re wary about re-opening this media wound. All of the “spirit” team is banned– Willie the Wildcat, cheerleaders. Cox will have no chance to clear her name though her coach Pam Bonnevier goaded her into the spotlight in the first place, the spokespeople also noted. NU is also “staying out of this one,” says Mike Wolf, assistant director of athletic communications. After Cox received direct threats and insults, the PR game is about making sure she’s safe. “Our primary concern is being supportive of Krissy and making sure her well-being is being taken care of,” Wolf says. Carrie wishes the department would issue an official statement in support of Krissy. Right now her only protectors are her friends and teammates who have deleted nasty postings from her Facebook wall and let her know that they’re on her side. Cox is okay, Carrie says, but still dealing with the repercussions. “It’s hard to be accused of having no school spirit when you’ve been a cheerleader for four years,” Carrie says acidly. “The thing that really pisses me off about this is that the people saying (insulting things about Cox) don’t support the teams. I want to go up to them and say, ‘How many games have you been to this year?'”

ESPN, possibly in an attempt to save floundering subscriptions, or just to dismiss ethical questions, is talking. NU has a tortured relationship with sports media. Many NU diehards feel that NU receives far less close-ups and feel-good stories of triumph than other similar teams. At the Alamo Bowl last year, some students complained that Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel was intensely profiled whereas CJ Bachér was snubbed. Even after the announcement that Carmody’s team had cracked the top 25, the Chicago Sun-Times ran the headline “Hard as it is to believe, NU a real player in college sports.” Columnist Rick Morrissey wrote, “NU never will be a sports factory, thank goodness, but it doesn’t have to be a think-tank for theoretical athletics, either.” Ouch.

How did Cox and NU even get roped into this whole ESPN story? The magazine asked its college football and basketball staffs for teams that have had ups and downs, but also ones that weren’t no-name, crappy programs. NU fit the bill. As Gary Belsky, editor-in-chief of the magazine put it: “I didn’t want an obscure school with sucky teams.” Belsky is taking personal calls and e-mails about the Cox article, something that took him by surprise. It’s not surprising that people are mad- it’s surprising that most of his callers haven’t read the article. “I keep asking them, ‘What specifically about the article upset you?’ and they never respond,” he says.

Parks and Liu jumped the gun on their own headline, and chose not to respond when asked if seeing the
transcript changed their minds about Cox. “Her comments embarrassed our school on a national level and completely marginalizes all the progress our teams have made,” Liu said in a Facebook message. He went so far as to say that she never should have given the interview in the first place.

However, NU’s records in football and basketball haven’t been exactly stellar, though it was before Parks and Liu’s time. Football went 4-8 in 2006, and 6-6 in 2007. Carmody’s squad went 13-18 and 8-22. Not awful, but not phenomenal. The spotty records followed by success have made NU fans kings of overreaction, worried someone is giving their team any less than what it deserves. The Big Ten isn’t exactly a favorite conference, either. Though it’s a recruiting tool, its teams tend to have poor bowl game results and are trampled by the Pac 10 or SEC, though Ohio State was victorious in this year’s Rose Bowl. Key-jangling aside, fans tend to toss around the argument that recruitment is harder on schools with more rigorous academic criteria. NU, no doubt, works magic on some applicants, but not to the degree of other state schools. “(NU fans) are hypersensitive because of that,” says Belsky. “The thing is that NU is certainly rollercoasterish in it’s record… It’s a brain school, and people who like to pick on college football like to pick on brain schools.”

It turns out the incriminating stuff isn’t in the article itself-Cox navigates the questions with ease and talks about the actual issue of pumping up unenthused or sometimes empty stands. “She’s not negative. She says nothing that is remotely school-bashing,” Belsky says. Cox’s coach and NU’s athletic department were told the exact nature of the article: what it’s like to cheer for a team when it’s losing. Note the subtle difference from the printed headline. That’s what has Wildcats’ fur standing on end. “We were up front from the beginning,” Belsky says, noting that Cox’s coach agreed exciting the crowd when the team is tanking is something she has to deal with. Clearly they went for the sexier headline, sacrificing intention and infuriating hundreds of students already stressed by finals. Even Belsky admits it was more controversial than it needed to be, though he swears that wasn’t the intention. “In hindsight I’m not sure if we should have changed it,” he says, “though there won’t be an apology (or a lawsuit) since I don’t think we did anything wrong (. . .) People just get brave when they’re online and take out their frustrations.”

No one walks out of this battle completely unscathed. Maybe ESPN should have gone with the kinder headline. Maybe the athletic department should have been more critical of the interview request. Maybe Cox should have turned it down. In any case that NU is the one school with often empty stands and a Purple Pride that only comes out during the late-night hours on a laptop. As Carrie puts it, “It’s not about cheering for a losing team. It’s about cheering for a school with no spirit.”