By Clark Matthews / @ClarkMatthews
"The Dirty Game," Sports Illustrated's five part series focusing on my alma mater, Oklahoma State University, has completed its rollout. On the cover of their weekly magazine, SI put in big bold letters over the byline "SEX, DRUGS, CASH, FRAUD, WHATEVER IT TAKES."
With a lead in like that, it is probably little surprise that the product failed to live up to the hype. Inside the articles there were some allegations of football recruits having sex--with women who may or may not have been affiliated with the program--while visiting campus. Some petty cash changed hands. There were players smoking weed--and going to counseling for it. There were allegations of players receiving grades they didn't deserve--from players who flunked out of school.
The general consensus now seems to be a chorus of "meh." Going on the Dan Patrick Show on Tuesday, The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel expected to be grilled about the SI series only to find that his segment was spent discussing the University of Nebraska's poor performance. In the end, he was only asked one question involving OSU and that was a multiple choice question about who had the worst week. It was asked as they ended the segment. Tramel's conclusion is that this story is largely of little interest outside our little panhandled hamlet.
Part of me is disappointed by this. The story the magazine claims it told, was worth telling. In a wrap-up article penned by editors Christian Stone and Jon Wertheim, the series was described in these terms:
When our team of writers and editors conceived of this project nearly a year ago, the goal was straightforward. We weren't interested in scolding players -- and more than 60 of them spoke on the record, independently, and on tape -- or casting them as the sole agents of corruption. (The Dirty Game is so much bigger than that.) We weren't interested in following what one colleague calls the "NCAA scandal train." (In the last month alone, it has made stops in Tuscaloosa, Chapel Hill, Knoxville and College Station.)
But as the need for reform in college sports becomes increasingly urgent, we thought it was essential to ground the discussion in detail by taking a deeper, longitudinal look at a BCS program. How does it all go down? How do the corrupt practices -- which many fans accept with fatigued indifference -- play out? What are the incentives not to cheat? And after they're done running through the tunnel and onto the field on fall Saturdays, what toll has the system taken on the players?
That was a story I would have been interested in reading. Perhaps that is what they would have published if they had made some of the following changes.
GET THE EDITING STAFF AND WRITING TEAM ON THE SAME PAGE
It should be noted that while Stone and Wertheim wrapped the expose into a grandiose package after th fact, neither of those men were involved with the crafting of the story. The article was written by George Dohrmann. The research was done almost exclusively by Thayer Evans (with Melissa Segura interviewing some of the women for the portion called "The Sex"). Editing was performed by B.J. Schecter.
So the higher ups, Stone and Wertheim, wanted an expose that could not be portrayed as just another takedown piece about a random college football team, the writing staff developed an article that was nothing more than a takedown piece about a random college football team.
If the objective was to get an understanding of the larger picture of the NCAA machine through the lens of Oklahoma State, the writers did a horrible job. From their own words (emphasis mine):
From '08-09 to '11-12, the period of the program's greatest success -- including its 2012 Fiesta Bowl victory -- the Cowboys' average APR was 926, third worst out of the 65 BCS schools in 2012.
A first positive test results in no penalty; a second leads to an immediate suspension of 10% of the regular season; a third, an immediate suspension of 50%. After a fourth positive test, the player is kicked off the team -- which is one more positive test than most BCS schools allow.
Between 2002 -- the year of Les Miles's first full recruiting class at Stillwater -- and 2010, 43.5% of the players who enrolled at the school left before exhausting their five years of eligibility...Texas Christian, another fast-rising program in the Big 12, lost about 23.4% of its players during that time.
To be clear, some of that is damning stuff and probably the most serious charges they throw out--the kind of stuff I want my school to clean up. However, it does not fit the story Sports Illustrated claims to be telling. If OSU is supposed to be a representative sampling of the bigger picture of college football, why be so careful to paint OSU as being among the worst offenders? One would think they would go out of their way to portray Oklahoma State as being near the median.
And do not believe the writers were above massaging the facts to make their point. I will get to that in the next section.
Barring the ability to portray the school they questioned as an ordinary program, another option would have been to look at multiple programs. Perhaps they could have looked into one type of misconduct at each school. Instead, the writing team went into takedown mode and the guys above them had to attempt to re-frame the piece as something entirely different.
DO SOME JOURNALISM
One of SI's biggest talking points is that they spent approximately ten months working on this expose. They love to toss out big numbers such as having more than 100 sources including 64 players in their research. Despite all this painstaking work, the article comes off as lazy journalism.
For instance, they did an portion of the article on academic misconduct. Yet, somehow they failed to even attempt to contact Marilyn Middlebrook, the school's Associate Athletic Director in charge of academic compliance. It is not out of the realm of possibility they did not want to tip off the school they were doing the investigation, but at some point you would think Thayer Evans would find interest in how the system was supposed to work.
This was a problem throughout the article. As they exposed broken rule after broken rule and portrayed it as a product of a system lacking checks and balances, someone with intimate knowledge of the program, such as myself, was struck by how the sources of the allegations were proof to the contrary. When William Bell, a former defensive end, talks about how drugs were running rampant and he knew it because he was selling those drugs, I have to wonder if a reader who has not followed the program closely since elementary school would have agreed with the author's premise if they had known Bell was kicked off the team for drug issues.
That's what journalism should be about--setting out the facts and letting the reader come to their conclusion. Dohrmann went in the opposite direction. He told the reader what they should think, and then gave the reader only as much information as he felt they would need to agree with him.
With some more journalistic effort by his research assistant, Evans, he might have succeeded in convincing readers even with full disclosure. Evans found disgruntled former players to give him dirt and seemed satisfied that their word was bond. No follow up was done to find out if there was any other proof that these specific events actually occurred.
Due to their coinciding release dates, the expose was juxtaposed to a Yahoo! article tying SEC players to an agent who was paying them while still eligible. Yahoo!, unlike SI, uncovered bank statements and text messages that corroborated their witness accounts. That's how a journalist makes a story.
Evans failed to do more than make an attempt to get denials from players, who were not whistleblowers, that had their name alleged. Some of it would have been simple to do. For instance, here is what Dohrmann wrote about Dez Bryant's study habits:
[I]t was well known that Bryant would not go to class unless shepherded, often by a football staff member, and that tutors did a majority of his coursework.
Now let me try this: It is well known that Thayer Evans was fired from his first journalism job at the Houston Chronicle when it was discovered he had embellished his resume.
Here is what Thayer had to say about such allegations: "A lot of the stuff that people have alleged are just urban myths perpetuated by the Internet."
Here's the thing, I used "it is well known" because all I have to go on are internet myths. Evans left his writer in the same position. Dohrmann wanted to get it out there that Dez Bryant was allowed to play, despite being an awful student, because he was a great player. Evans gave him rumors and innuendo as prooof. It shouldn't have come to that. It isn't against the rules for a coach or tutor to escort a player to class to ensure they make it there. How hard would it have been for the investigator to get one of his 100 on-the-record sources to say they actually saw that take place, or even that they were one of them. If he had, Dohrmann could have used much stronger language and made a better article.
PUT SOME SKIN IN THE GAME
The editing staff thought the article was one thing, the writing staff thought it was another thing, but there is one part of the Sports Illustrated staff who was very clear on what this article portrayed. It was the legal staff, and what was portrayed was ass covering.
In part 1 "The Money," SI probably made their best case of shenanigans. It was the longest piece and they actually had former players admitting to significant NCAA rules violations. However, if players are getting cash, someone is giving it to them.
Who? I ask. The players taking the money were apparently asking the same questions from the look of it. Only three "boosters" had their names mentioned in the article. One was a deceased woman whose job was curator of a museum in Stillwater, OK. The second was the Fellowship of Christian Athletes representative who works with the athletes at the school. The third was billionaire and program benefactor Boone Pickens.
Care to guess which of those three only had their name mentioned to disclaim any evidence of wrongdoing?
The first two people were no threat to file a libel suit and win. Boone Pickens, on the other hand, has the means to take Time, Incorporated to court.
Later, part 3 "The Sex" was delayed four hours, presumably so the lawyers could comb over text and make sure none of the Orange Pride members who had gone on to law school would file suit. The article was full of parenthasized disclaimers and weird editing errors that are tell-tale signs of last minute re-writes.
The thing is, if SI had the school as dead-to-rights as they claimed in their promotions of the article, they should have put what they knew out there. Are we really supposed to believe that players sought out boosters to hook them up when they were low on funds and could not remember the names? One player claimed to have visited a local business while other players went inside to collect cash. It's strange he can't remember the one business that he knew could give him an unearned payday.
It tells me that either the players completely fabricated this, or SI shielded them after the fact.
CONSIDER THE IMAGE
In my last article for The Sports Fan Journal, I was pretty clear in why I believed Thayer Evans was a poor choice to have participated in this article. Perception is fact, and the perception is that Evans has a vendetta against Oklahoma State University.
If they believed Evans was the best investigator for this grandiose article, Oklahoma State should not have been the school they centered on. He could have used the information he had heard about as a jumping off point at another school. Considering the guys who gave this story a green light believe it is simply emblematic of every other school, that shouldn't have been a problem.
SI claimed they chose OSU because they wanted to determine how a school who was once a major conference laughing stock suddenly became good. However, there are a plethora of teams that also fit that description. Oregon, Stanford, Northwestern...hell, Alabama was 3-8 two years before they went undefeated and then reeled off a bunch of 12-1 seasons. Why not do one of those schools in which Evans had not written a series in which he caustically rooted for their failure at his previous employer.
FINALLY, WRITE A BETTER STORY
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