The Seattle Times completed a four-day series today called “Victory and Ruins” that demands the attention of sports journalists, legal observers, college football administrators and fans.
The first-day overview seems to point an accusing finger at former Head Coach Rick Neuheisil, and you certainly are left shaking your head that UCLA recently hired Neuheisil to “lead” their football program. As damaging as it might be that Neuheisil ran a program with so many legal problems, the negative light the series casts on the University of Washington, the local media, and especially, the local court system is astounding.
The narrative piece leaves most judgments and conclusions to the reader and doesn’t hammer you with opinion. That narrative is incredibly detailed and damning. The pieces paint a picture of a culture that coddles football players. To say that the ugliest sort of behavior, from rape, to attempted murder, to spousal assault was tolerated seems to understate the situation. From the picture created by the Times, I concluded there were forces actively sweeping these scandals under the rug at the same time an alternative reality was built.
Everything I say from here on is based on the fact that I buy the piece as written. My conclusions about the sports journalism lessons we can learn from the series are based on the assumption the story is accurate and complete.
The damning investigative details of the series immediately made me recall something that caused some considerable stir just after I entered the business in the early 70s. Wes Gallagher was the legendary head of AP in the 60s and 70s. He was revered and, in the eyes of a 24 year-old managing editor in Ypsilanti, Michigan, a bit feared. A cursory Google search doesn’t yield the exact quote, but memory tells me that in the wake of Watergate, Gallagher decried the “investigative binge” and said something like this: “If we do our daily job of reporting there should be no need for investigative reporting.” My apologies if I have the specific quote wrong, but I think it is close enough to conclude Gallagher’s point is dead on in this case.
Reasonable minds could assume that media folk in 2000 “smelled” some of these problems. If sports reporters had appreciated they were covering more than toys and games, this week’s series might not have been necessary.
The genius of the work of writers Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry is they never SAY anything like that. They allow the reader to reach independent conclusions. The conclusion this reader reached is there simply had to be conversations, hints and innuendo about the criminal troubles of these athletes if you hung around the program. It is very difficult to believe that media covering the team, boosters and coaches didn’t have a sense of this entire picture. The days of sports journalists “protecting” programs should be over. Yet, I don’t want to be accused of amnesia here. I know from first-hand experience how secretive and intimidating sports programs can be. I have my own scars. The question to ask in your town is: In five years will somebody be able to do a “Seattle Times” investigation on the local sports program?
One journalism lesson that struck me is also a legal lesson. The number of judges who suspended sentences, warned about the next offense and then never followed up, or simply didn’t know about other pending cases, was disturbing at a basic level. I don’t know if the court system has become as shoddy as it appears it was in Seattle. If it has, the press has a basic obligation to step up coverage and supply the accountability the legal system may not be providing for itself.
I am sure people in Seattle today are taking a hard look at how the University of Washington deals with athletes. I hope the judicial system gets the same hard look. If I lived in Seattle, I’d be profoundly disturbed.
Another lesson we should all learn from the piece comes in the second installment in a story about a violent, philandering linebacker named Jeremiah Pharms. The story includes this line. “Many picked up the game-day program, which included a story about Pharms headlined “Putting Phamily Phirst.” The UW Sports Information department apparently approved a story that put this young man in a totally false light. Again, as sports journalists, we have to know we can’t believe everything we read. It is absolutely the worst form of second-guessing on my part, but I would be stunned if media folk in the press box did not gossip about that piece and the stuff they had been “hearing.”
This series also gave me a story idea I hope every newspaper with a major university will follow. It highlights a few notoriously “easy’ classes UW football players flocked to in order to keep their grades up. The story says one player “earned 30 Swahili credits in all, nearly a fifth of his UW total.” Swahili was the “basket-weaving” class at UW. What is that class your school? I bet some careful reporting would “out’ the “easy’”classes quite quickly. I’m betting such a story would produce instant accountability.
The lessons from this series are many, and I could go on, but the final lesson of this excellent project came today, on the last day of the series. The writers threw a dramatic change of speed at the reader. Rather than continuing the tales of bad guys on that 2000 team, we read a gripping story about a student-athlete who got turned on to learning. The authors show us a young man who was a fine football player until he began to learn there was more to life than making a game-saving tackle.
In telling that young man’s story, the Times produced perhaps the most damning story of the four-part series because it showed how ostracizing it is for a football player to say “Hey, I’m here to learn.” That piece, above all the others, made me regret that I am complicit with this whole athletic machine because I tune in every Saturday.
So “hooray, hooray, hooray” for the Seattle Times for doing a sports journalism story that really matters.
AND, IF ANYONE DOUBTS
Just in case anyone wonders if college football is still out of control read Mark Schlabach’s excellent story on the University of West Virginia and Rich Rodriguez. You end up saying “pox on all their houses.” Nobody comes off well, but I’ve got to say when a governor of a state is that involved in a football program no good is going to come of it. The piece is another testament to the fact that mainstream media needs to start making some important moves to put college football into the proper social perspective.