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Tom Miller / Forum News Service, Published February 20 2013

Miller: Suspension for UND announcer was justified

Grand Forks - University of North Dakota athletics took its basketball radio broadcasts in-house five years ago, meaning the university was in charge of selling the advertising and providing the on-air talent for its men’s games.

That means men’s basketball play-by-play radio announcer Paul Ralston has an office in the Hyslop Sports Center and his title also is that of director of broadcast properties. He’s a member of the athletic department’s marketing, promotion and sales team.

Ralston, therefore, is a university employee and more importantly an extension of the public relations staff.

So I was baffled when the story of Ralston being suspended two games for his comments following last Saturday’s loss to Northern Arizona went viral, landing on the front pages of the Sports Illustrated and ESPN web sites.

On ESPN.com, the reprinted story from Tuesday’s Grand Forks Herald received more than 1,400 comments as of Wednesday afternoon.

Here’s a quick summary of the incident: UND suspended Ralston for two games after he used the phrase “choke job” during an interview with North Dakota coach Brian Jones immediately following an overtime loss to Northern Arizona in Grand Forks.

Scanning comments from Facebook, Twitter, various newspaper web sites and message boards, the majority opinion is completely off-base.

This story went national either because people don’t understand how in-house radio works or because they want it to be more than it is.

They want the Ralston story to be full of awesome gossip or sexy controversy.

Well, I’m sorry. It’s not.

This is not a hit on freedom of speech.

This is not about athletic director Brian Faison or Jones having thin skin or the university hushing a critic.

This is definitely not about whether North Dakota is a red state or a blue state.

It’s exactly how employer-employee relationships work. The employee crossed the line with a co-worker by using an inappropriate choice of words and creating a combative environment.

Ralston can be critical (in fact I’m sure he’s encouraged, to an extent), but he’s asked to do it in a professional manner. When that line was blurred Saturday afternoon, he received a very minor punishment (Ralston is not docked any pay in the suspension. He essentially gets the weekend off).

What makes Ralston successful – his passion and enthusiasm for basketball and UND athletics – also is what got him in trouble.

He overreacted by calling UND’s 74-72 overtime loss to Northern Arizona a “choke job.”

The game saw 20 lead changes and UND never led by more than five points. UND missed five free throws in the final four minutes of regulation, but the Green and White also shot 17-for-23 (73.9 percent) from the line for the game.

UND did all this while missing at least two starters to injury and dressing nine healthy players. Despite the incredibly short bench, UND sits in third place in the Big Sky Conference (in its first year in the league) behind powerhouses Montana and Weber State.

How can you have a choke job when you never led by more than five points and your opponent once held a 10-point lead in the first half?

Ralston will be back at work next week, hopefully with the same enthusiasm and excitement that characterize his strengths. This time, though, maybe we’ll hear questions about poise, composure and confidence.

I think the phrase “choke job” can be retired, unless, of course, a newspaper columnist wants to use it.

Miller writes for the Grand Forks Herald