Journalism Needs Journalists, Not Phonies

If you haven’t noticed, sports journalism is diseased and dying, swallowed up by conflicted corporate interests at major TV networks and watered down by reporters so busy promoting themselves and politicizing their way into positions at those networks that they forget their professional purpose.

That is, to report.

And to investigate.

And to at least try, in the face of lockdown resistance that makes it more difficult than ever to penetrate the hermetically sealed cocoons of professional and college sports, to uncover the wrongs and make them right.

Given the mega-billions swirling around pro leagues, college conferences and TV networks — and the inevitable conflicts of interests within — whatever is left of journalism is pretty damned important these days. ESPN spoke volumes about its future journalistic intentions when it bowed to the demands of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — its partner in a longstanding business relationship that includes an eight-year, $15.5-billion extension for the cherished “Monday Night Football” franchise — when he leaned on the network to end an affiliation with PBS on a cutting-edge October documentary about concussions. With that wishy-washy precedent established, don’t expect much investigative work from ESPN that would upset its business partners, who, of course, happen to include almost every vital player in the sports kingdom. Fox Sports, the No. 2 network, gave up on investigative reporting long ago, assuming it was involved at all while searching the earth for dorm-room-pinup blondes and shining up Cleatus the Robot every football season.

That leaves … who? Local newspapers are either about to perish or are in a slow death spiral and, with few exceptions, want nothing to do with angering the powers-that-be in their sports communities. Did you see the recent news about Ron Morris, who was doing good work as a tough, fair critic of the University of South Carolina football program? Seems Steve Spurrier, Head Ball Coach of the Gamecocks and a legendary good-old-boy schmoozer, used his connections with Morris’ boss, publisher of The State newspaper in Columbia, to have Morris’ commentaries shifted to other topics. Spurrier admitted he pushed hard for a diehard South Carolina fan, Glenn Snyder, to replace Morris. Snyder got the call and told the Romenesko Report website, “I love the University of South Carolina. I love Steve Spurrier …” This prompted the great Leigh Montville, now working for the Sports On Earth site, to write a sample pro-Gamecocks column for Snyder to use anytime he needs to appease the Ball Coach. Since then, publisher Henry Haitz has softened his stance, saying he isn’t ‘Cock-blocking Morris and will allow him to comment on Spurrier and his program.

This sort of journalistic corruption is happening all over the business, as media companies prioritize the sellout dollar over any sort of ethics. It happened to me in Chicago — first at the god-awful Sun-Times, then at ESPN Radio, which was trying to hold onto White Sox/Bulls broadcast rights and asked me to sign a form promising I wouldn’t discuss aspects of those teams on the air. When I refused, the station dismissed me the morning after Christmas, and ESPN radio execs called me out for it years later when they were interested in hiring me in Los Angeles. Not all aggrieved media members are in position to go public; they might have incomes and families to protect and aren’t in position to speak up, as I was. But you get the picture. Whenever a news outlet has the balls and journalistic wherewithal to break an expose, we should applaud the effort in 2013. Unless it’s factually flawed or recklessly reported, we should welcome the reporting mission that is done well.

Last week, two media organizations continued to prove they are more interested in covering sports than making money off sports. Yahoo! Sports, which we once ridiculed because of the name, again earned the exclamation point with its latest special report about the sordid, sleazy cesspool that is college football. It alleged that five SEC players, including former Alabama All-American tackle D.J. Fluker, received impermissible benefits during their college careers, and that another ex-Alabama player, Luther Davis, acted as a go-between for agents and arranged for Fluker to receive illegal gifts. Assuming the NCAA is still in the investigation business after the Johnny Manziel autographs-for-pay whiff and wants to prove Fluker was ineligible, Alabama might be forced to vacate a national championship. And if it can demonstrate that coach Nick Saban knew about this issue and didn’t report it immediately — the downfall of Ohio State coach Jim Tressel — then we have an enormous scandal that impacts college sports history.

The Yahoo investigation is a commentary on the continuing ills of a high-revenue sport, reflecting the dubious condition of higher education in America. I feel the same way about Sports Illustrated’s probe of the Oklahoma State program, which exposed more of the usual wrongdoing on and off campus — academic fraud, under-the-table benefits, drug use and positive tests conveniently ignored for stars — and did so with enough detail to make me ask larger questions. Such as, how much uglier will the scandals become when ESPN takes over the sport next year — with its 12-year, $7.3-billion investment in the national playoff tournament? What happens if the 64 sainted, power-conference programs (with Notre Dame) form their own bloc and “self-enforce” their own houses? Can you imagine the potential for anarchy and lawlessness? Point being, the more exposes we have, the better the chance of keeping programs cleaner in the future. If the NCAA shies from definitive investigative work — the enforcement department is in disarray after bungled recent probes led to several resignations — and ESPN no longer is conducting investigations as the financial ruler of the sport, then thank heavens for Yahoo, Sports Illustrated, USA Today and whoever else is still fighting the good fight and keeping these collegiate cash cows honest.

Which is why I cringed when commentator Jason Whitlock, who advertises himself as a tough-guy critic at-large, condemned Sports Illustrated’s Oklahoma State work based on a petty grudge he holds against one of the report’s authors. I do not care what Whitlock personally thinks of Thayer Evans, nor does anyone else outside of Stillwater, Okla. — where a pack of wounded fans and boosters naturally want to kill the messenger — care about Whitlock and Evans or even know who they are. All I’m concerned about is the content in the five-part SI series and whether it is accurate. And as yet, I’m not hearing anyone, including Whitlock, explain specifically why this story is a pile of crap, other than a few sources claiming they didn’t know they were on the record or on tape, the typical complaints after a major investigation is published. Oklahoma State isn’t denying much, and the athletic director did issue a self-indicting public apology for the fuss. Based on my decades of reporting experience — including my share of breaking stories (I’ll provide a list) — it appears most of the reported wrongdoing is accurate, and that the investigation was well worth the effort.

Don’t we want to know what truly is happening inside these programs, especially amid a multi-billion-dollar bonanza in a system more easily corruptible than ever? Wouldn’t you rather probe these places than just allow them to run amok?

Not in Whitlock’s vindictive world, apparently. He says the SI investigation was “unsophisticated” — again, while not once explaining precisely what’s wrong with the series yet going into great detail on why Evans is a schmuck. This is shoddy, childish, embarrassing, bullying b.s. from Whitlock, who, if his Twitter feed reflects his life and career, doesn’t investigate much of anything except G-strings in strip joints. If you’re going to criticize those who are trying to break stories, you’d better try breaking some stories yourself.

Otherwise, shut up and sit down.

In his new capacity at ESPN, Whitlock has been hired not so much to be on the air — I investigated for myself and confirmed it — but to run a sub-site promoting African-American sports journalists. That’s a worthwhile mission, given the unfortunate dearth of minorities in the profession, but what’s he going to do with such a sensitive assignment? Will he teach his hires to trash the work of other journalists just because he doesn’t like them personally? That wouldn’t be very ESPN-like, and he won’t last long there if unprofessional tactics are his mission. Fact is, Oklahoma State is dirty as cow crud. Fact is, until someone demonstrates otherwise, the SI report exposed the school as treating football players like animals — allowing them to slide through college courses while doing little or no work; letting them get high, even during games, with no repercussions; and distributing under-the-table money via an elaborate system, including a bag man on the coaching staff. The school is not educating young men. The school is exploiting them, enabling them — and not preparing them for life.

As one who often has condemned the college machine for exploiting black athletes, Whitlock should be upset that such universities continue to abuse young men — of all shapes, sizes and races, by the way. Instead, in what comes off as hypocritical and twisted, he writes in a piece that ESPN ran, rather surprisingly, “The stories do not promote healthy NCAA change. The stories demonize the `greedy, immature, uneducated, entitled, mostly-black’ athletes and bait sports fans, the media and college administrators to view the denial of opportunity as a solution.”

The stories don’t promote healthy NCAA change? I’d say the SI and Yahoo reports are self-explanatory, screaming out that change is urgently necessary in college sports, assuming the system isn’t irretrievably broken. And how are these stories “demonizing” what he calls “mostly-black” athletes? The reports make a mockery of so-called institutions of higher learning and their exploitation of all athletes in big-revenue sports — black, white, whatever. How is this a racial issue?

Isn’t the most scrutinized, demonized athlete in the history of college sports a white kid with pimples named Johnny Manziel?

Any credibility Whitlock has as a commentator disappears when he takes apart a rival like a trash-talker on a football field — once again, without citing any specific examples of poor reporting in the Oklahoma State expose. Whitlock appeared on an Oklahoma City radio station and was so out of sorts in an interview, ESPN was forced to issue a statement separating the network from his comments. “We have discussed Jason’s comments with him. They were personal in nature, they do not represent ESPN and they are not acceptable based on the standards we have set,” ESPN told ShermanReport.com in a statement.

Among the observations that required the official corporate slapdown:

Whitlock: “I think the story is a cliché and bogus and suspect and just the wrong angle.”

Why is the story bogus and suspect and the wrong angle? If Oklahoma State is cheating and committing academic fraud, it’s the right angle to investigate. What are journalists supposed to do, quit trying to expose college programs because so many have been dirty in the past? If news organizations are committed to investigations, we’ll have a better chance of creating a groundswell to fix a broken system. Halting the journalistic process makes no sense — then the cheating becomes even more widespread.

Whitlock: “… having worked with Thayer Evans at Fox Sports, having followed his work for some time, I am completely and utterly flabbergasted that a legitimate news outlet would allow Thayer Evans to be involved in some type of investigative piece on college football that tears down a program, and particularly one that tears down Oklahoma State when it is no secret what a huge, enormous, gigantic Oklahoma homer Thayer Evans is. This is just incredible. Knowing the lack of competence that’s there with Thayer Evans, knowing the level of simplemindedness that’s there with Thayer Evans, to base any part of the story on his reporting is mind-boggling.”

Um, who is being simple-minded? It’s neither here nor there if Evans happens to root for Oklahoma, and I’m not sure he does. If a Republican finds dirt on Barack Obama, and it’s legitimate dirt, then who cares if he’s a Republican? Whitlock sounds like a 17-year-old in a high-school lunchroom who’s mad because someone stole his girl. All I see is Evans breaking a big story that no one is strongly refuting, and all I see is Whitlock sitting on his ass and pontificating without providing anything to back up his claims.

Whitlock: “ … When I learned Thayer Evans was involved, I just said, there’s no way I’ll read this because there’s no reason to trust this reporter on anything of any substance. If you go back and look at his track record of reporting and the consistent controversy that surrounds his reporting — he made a name for himself at the New York Times by writing these annual stories about some top high school football recruit that he would buddy up to, follow around with a tape recorder and then report what some immature 17-year-old kid said about the recruiting process. These kids tended to come from single-parent families with the mother working and busy, so there wasn’t the normal oversight and anybody with a brain could see the exploitation that was taking place. … It doesn’t surprise me there are sources in this story saying the reporting was heavy-handed and leading. I don’t want to make the whole thing about Thayer Evans, but there’s just no way to avoid it. I’ve worked with him. He’s simpleminded. He’s a hack that can’t write. This isn’t personal, I promise. I have no reason to dislike Thayer Evans personally, and I don’t. But I’ve read enough of his work this guy isn’t qualified for this job and by now Sports Illustrated and anybody else should be well aware of this. Type his name into Google, read his previous work, read how his previous work has been rebunked and there’s just no surprise. This story will be shrouded in controversy.”

The man has a serious, deep-rooted problem with Thayer Evans, doesn’t he? If Evans hadn’t done some measure of credible work in the past, I don’t think SI would have hired him. It should be noted that the other writer on the Oklahoma State series, George Dohrmann, has won a Pulitzer Prize and is coming off a solid expose on UCLA basketball that helped lead to coach Ben Howland’s ouster and has stood the test of time. As for calling Evans “a hack that can’t write,” I hardly would call Whitlock a stylish writer. Sports Illustrated, by the way, isn’t beyond reproach. All of this might be perceived as crossfire between Whitlock — representing new employer ESPN — and an SI media critic named Richard Deitsch, who has ripped Whitlock often and has a way of criticizing ESPN and other outlets while ALWAYS PRAISING SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, which is a blatant conflict of interest itself.

I know, aren’t all these people silly? And unprofessional?

If you’re looking for a way to express disgust with the system and exhaustion with every new dirty detail, Paul Newberry of the Associated Press found it. Here’s how he approached his column the other day on the SI and Yahoo reports:

“Maybe it’s time to wave the white flag.

“Just concede that college sports will always be a cesspool of under-the-table payouts, win-at-all-cost coaches, look-the-other-way administrators, out-of-control boosters, and athletes who make a mockery of the word `student.’

“After another glorious week in the annals of higher education — Oklahoma State was accused of widespread violations in its football program by Sports Illustrated, while Yahoo Sports reported that several Southeastern Conference players received illicit payments — do any of us believe the guys running this multibillion-dollar enterprise have any intention of going legitimate?

“No way.

“They throw out a bone every now and then — graduation rates that suit their purposes, for instance — but in reality this whole business is just a step above the Sopranos.

“There are plenty of good ideas out there, but most of them will never see the light of day.

“It’s so much more profitable to lurk in the shadows.

“Coaches making millions, while some of their own players barely have enough money to live on. Athletic directors selling off their universities to the highest bidder, traditional rivalries and logical alignments be damned. College presidents lurking around the locker room after big wins like star-struck fans, doling out Atta boys to players who have no chance of leaving campus with a diploma.

“But, really, they are not the problem.

“The real problem is right there in the mirror.

“Sure, we talk a good game. But do we really have any intention of giving up those fancy tailgate parties, shared on Saturdays with 100,000 of our closest friends? Would we stand for a university president lecturing us on the dangers of turning our cathedrals of learning into de facto minor-league programs, as Joab Thomas had the nerve to do at Alabama in the mid-1980s before he was quickly shown the door?

“No way.”

That’s the type of column I would show a young journalist, while also issuing this advice:

Write for the reader. Realize that sports is more vulnerable to corruption today than ever before, including the TV networks that enable a multi-billion-dollar sports economy. Understand that no one cares about sportswriters but other sportswriters.

And do not be a phony.