Last night in prime time ESPN aired a celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (instead of just televising a Major League Baseball game, which is essentially the same thing), so it’s safe to say that it was not a circle-the-date-on-your-calendar night in sports.
1. Final Thoughts on Sports Illustrated and Oklahoma State
Remembering that it was someone from Stillwater –the band, not the town — who originally said, “He was never a person. He was a journalist.”
Anyway, a few more thoughts:
A) When last Friday I enumerated all those talented men and women who once checked facts at Sports Illustrated (Hey, kids, Ashley Fox will be on “Outside The Lines” today to talk Andy Reid!), I failed to note that some of those who arrived since my departure have already gone on to bigger (Pablo Torre, “Around The Horn”) and better (David Epstein, “The Sports Gene”) things. I also failed to take into account that some of the fact-checkers there now will likely also do so.
I apologize for the first oversight. As for the second, not so much: SI only lists two reporters on its masthead. It used to list all of them. I had no idea there were more than two reporters. My guess [I never phone friends at SI for information about SI…that’s why we’re still friends…or at least we were before Friday 🙂 ] is that these men and women are on “project” status, which means that they do not receive full or perhaps even partial benefits. If this is true, SI should address that. Don’t marginalize employees when it is convenient to do so, then tell us they’re on staff when it suits your purposes.
B) Either way, I imagine that these fact-checker CHECKED THE FACTS of the story to the best of their abilities.
(A quick aside: Tim Crothers, perhaps my favorite fact-checking alumnus, advocated a system called “Defensive Checking”: he only checked the facts for which SI could be sued. It eliminated half the work and was a very efficient means of checking. Once more in my life, I tip my cap to Timothy.)
Anyhoo, they may have checked the facts, but there was more to being a fact-checker when I was there. It was your responsibility to do some critical thinking. To analyze the story conceptually. To poke holes –or in this case, to cowpoke holes — in logic or in the writer’s premise IF YOU SAW THEM.
So if I were a current SI fact-checker working on SI’s OSU series, here are questions I would have put to the editors:
1. Does our story explain HOW Oklahoma State improved, which is our stated purpose in embarking upon this series? (The answer is “No”, by the way). Because Stanford improved greatly over the same time period. So, for a time, did Notre Dame. And they don’t, to my mind, pay players or do the hostess sexing (Notre Dame does not even have hostesses) or give no-show grades (Everett Golson, anybody?). And if either school did, wouldn’t that be a much BIGGER story?
2) We could find lots of schools (North Carolina, e.g.) who are involved in similar shadiness who have not improved. So isn’t our premise flawed?
3) T. Boone Pickens, a $165 million gift to the university. BOOM! Are we really going to simply gloss over that fact? Again, an aside. When I was at SI (1989-2001 and 2003-2006) a baseball team would be hot and so we’d dispatch a writer on Thursday to cover the “red-hot Twins” or some such outfit. By Sunday night, when the story was filed and being fact-checked that team, without fail, would have just been swept in its weekend series. We’d still run the story, but the editor would plug in a parenthetical such as, “Despite being swept by the Yankees over the weekend and outscored 203-2, the Twins are the hottest team in baseball.”
Oh, how I miss those moments.
4) How come Oklahoma State and not Oregon? Might it not look to a critical observer that we are “ducking” Oregon (yes, even my notes to editors would contain puns…it’s a sickness) because of Phil Knight, Nike and the potential adverse effect on advertising revenue?
Those are just some of the questions I’d ask. And maybe a current SI fact-checker, or hopefully, a current SI editor posed those very questions. If there were ever a time SI needed Jim Harper, or at least a Red Team 2 meeting…If they did, I’d invite them to come forward (and I’ll be happy to find you a job serving diners with me in Manhattan…it’s actually more fun than fact-checking, by the way).
C) None of this is a problem if Sports Illustrated does not state in its official “Overview” the following:
How does a Division I program make such a large leap in such a short time? SI dispatched senior writers George Dohrmann and Thayer Evans to begin searching for the answer.
I’d argue with the honesty behind this statement. I have no proof, but here is what I believe happened. Evans, who knows the Sooner State well and was raised there, goes in search of low-hanging fruit. He tells the editors that, via old contacts and people he has come across while wearing out the soles of his cowboy boots in the past, that he can dig up some dirt on corruption taking place at Oklahoma State. Terrific, someone thinks, but HOW do we frame it? Oh, I got it, let’s say it’s an attempt to discover a reason behind Oklahoma State’s rapid ascent.
Bad idea, for the aforementioned reasons.
Now, if SI had simply come out and said, We’re going to peek behind the curtain of a major FBS program. We’re going to show you some of the stink therein as a means of exposing the systemic septic nature of big-time college football. Let’s toss it out and start over from scratch (and let’s not ask Bob Bowlsby to help). If SI had done that, I know that I wouldn’t have been so critical of the series. Many others would not have, either.
In fact -IN FACT! — SI sorta did just that. After providing an “Overview”, and then running a five-part series, yesterday SI penned a “What It All Means” piece which, on the surface, was an attempt to tell us…what it all means. Because you and I are apparently too dumb to understand it (Later, Chris Rock will explain the concept behind his, “Married and bored, single and lonely” joke). But what that really was, Jerry Dantana, was an attempt to make us forget that last week their stated premise was to show us how OSU got better so quickly.
Here’s what SI said yesterday: ”
When our team of writers and editors conceived of this project nearly a year ago, the goal was straightforward…we thought it was essential to ground the discussion in detail by taking a deeper, longitudinal look at a BCS program…”
Ohhhh. You wanted to take a deeper, longitudinal (longitudinal, not latitudinal) look at a BCS program. Why didn’t you just say so? Because that’s not what you said last week.
I’m doing my best to refrain from an ad hominem attack here (I prefer to leave those to Whitlock), but this is the M.O. of the ME whom I knew so well. “Oh, you think I meant that…no, no no: I meant this.” The difference here, though, is that we have it in print. And SI is contradicting itself, just hoping that you and I don’t notice.
What was it that Whitlock told Keith Olbermann on the night his eponymous show made its debut, in referring to Deadspin? “Someone has to watch the watchers.”
Guess what? I’m watching the watchers. And this was intellectually dishonest.
D) Speaking of Deadspin, two of SI’s editors (one of whom is my favorite writer currently employed at SI and as smart and sharp as anyone on staff) did an interview with that site yesterday about the series. The fact that, one week into it, SI and not OSU is the story speaks volumes. As does the fact that SI even consented to the interrogation.
What the editors never tell Deadspin, and kudos to the site for grilling them about it near the top, is that they picked ONE school because it was the path of least resistance. Thayer Evans had all these supposedly great sources and interviews and so we just decided to ride that horse and we could tell the same story without having to exhaust as many resources.
Also, nowhere in the Deadspin interview do the editors state that their intent was to see how Oklahoma State improved so quickly. They are SO walking back from that premise now, aren’t they?
E) About Thayer Evans…. I’d like to know:
1) Did these interview subjects, all of them, realize that they were being interviewed?
2) Did these interview subjects, all of them, know that their conversations were being recorded?
3) Did any of them ask, “What’s this story about?” and what was Thayer’s answer?
Granted, there’s a gray area when interviewing people for a controversial piece. There are also baseline ethical standards. If you read this blog entry you may find it hard to reconcile the idea that Evans was acting ethically in the pursuit of this story.
Finally, I’ll address a question many of you may be harboring: Why do I hate Sports Illustrated so much? Au contraire, mon frère. I’ve been obsessed with the magazine since I was old enough to read. Had my bedroom wall covered with SI covers when I was a boy and had my dorm wall adorned with a few SI covers from the early Holtz era, then fulfilled a lifelong dream –granted, I had not been alive that long –when I was hired to work there. As noted above, I worked there for 15 years –it was hardly a cup of coffee.
I love the magazine and what it has the potential to mean, a potential often met and yes, even under the current administration — to the sports ecosystem. And, as someone who knows the place well and whose opinions about it no longer have direct consequences, I’ll continue to chide it when it underperforms and praise it when it does well.
Because, let me tell you, what they’re doing over at ESPN the Magazine isn’t exactly journalism. It’s sports writing, but it’s not journalism. They’re attached to the teat; they cannot do that. Sports Illustrated still has the power, and I’d say it has the moral imperative, to perform such feats. To be, dare I say, as great as Yahoo! Sports.
And, by the way, I launched this blog on August 16, 2012. Which is SI’s birthday. That was hardly a coincidence.
Thanks for reading. I’m off to see if Taylor Warren is still hiring for that media consulting firm that she’s launching.
Thanks for your insiteful article.
After the passing of a week, we Okies have pretty much seen behind the great wizards’s curtain and offer up a “consider the source” approach regarding the gutless Thayer Evans.
Problem is, the rest of the country hasn’t had the opportunity to look at all of the facts that have since come out. In other words… the damage has been done to the OSU brand. And you know what… that’s a shame. A shame on Thayer Evans.
My problem with the entire concept behind the SI article is the professionalism (lack of). Putting a Pulitzer Prize winner’s name on the article appears to have been done just to add some legitamacy to Evan’s drivel. If that’s the case, it is a embarassing tarnish to be overlaid on a admirable journalistic career. Shame on you, too.
And here’s why…
I’m no journalist nor journalism major, but… if I wanted to go out and write an insightful article, my approach would be…
1) Go out and gather some facts
2) Go back and write a story about the facts that I uncovered.
Sounds CRAZY, I know.
What the pen whipping thugs at SI did was…
1) Determine a story first.
2) Go out and find facts to plug into their story.
OK… I can see how that could happen. But it is SHAMEFUL to selectively interview and gather facts from what clearly is not a fair representation of the student athletes of the school. It would be easy to write the same crap about your school, or your office, or your family, or your church or your (insert whatever) if I just went around to all your crazy cousins that were bittered because they were taken outta grandpa’s will.
Wish I coulda said this in a shorter manner… but it needed to be said.
So… SHAME on Thayer Evans, SHAME on Dormann, and SHAME on SI (a dying rag of a mag that I haven’t felt the need to read – other than the swimsuit issue for about 10 years now).
Thanks for hearing me out.
RIDE ‘EM COWBOYS!
Bad reporting and fact checking aside, even if you believe everything in the article, the SI article tells the story of a program that cleaned up. But it tells more that that. It tells the story of how money cleaned up a program. To the extent that OSU played fast and lose with the rules under Simmons and Miles, they did so because they didn’t have the resources to compete. Once they got the resources and facilities, OSU was able to run a cleaner program. The story here is facilities.
It is difficult to overstate how moronic this series was. It is as if someone wanted to do a expose on American capitalism, chose Anna Nicole Smith as their subject, wrote an expose about her drinking and pill taking never mentioning that she married a billionaire, and then concluded that American capitalism is corrupt because Smith proves that the way you get rich is by drinking and taking pills. Dohrmann had a story and he completely missed it. The story is that after the scandals of the 1980s the big athletic departments figured out that they could within the rules effectively pay their players and use their superior resources to their advantage by building outrageous facilities. Who cares if some OSU booster could offer a recruit a nice car. OU and Texas could offer him a private plane to every game, a luxury apartment known as an athletic dorm, a gourmet training table and so forth. Think about it. A coach can’t buy a player a hamburger at McDonalds but he can raise the money and build a multi million dollar training facility and hire a five star chef to cook all of that player’s meals. That is the scandal. And that is the driving force in college athletics over the last 20 years; the enormously expensive facilities arms race.
If Dorhmann had any integrity and were half as smart as he thinks he is, that is the story he would have written. People are not shocked by the revelation that college athletes may get help academically or have sex or smoke marijuana. But I bet a lot of them would be shocked if they saw how palatial the top NCAA athletic facilities are. Moreover, if your goal is to indict a system, you don’t do that by showing people breaking the rules of that system. That just indicts the people breaking the rules. You indict the system by showing people doing outrageous things within the rules. The billions of dollars spent on gold plated athletic facilities over the last 20 years is a great example of that and a real indictment of the NCAA. And Dornhmann is so stupid and short sighted he missed it. And the beauty of writing such a story would have been that it wouldn’t have required talking to people in prison or slandering dead people or anything sleazy. OSU would have written it for him and gladly let him in and bragged about how great their facilities are and how much money they got from Pickens and hung themselves and the entire NCAA with them. OSU and Oregon are the two prime examples of how facilities, not sex or hundred dollar handshakes, are the name of the game these days.
Instead he wrote some boring he said she said story about a bunch of petty violations that happened ten or more years ago and various losers who can’t take responsibility for their actions, as if some sex and a few hundred dollars were enough to get a recruit in this day and age. Hell, the violations detailed in that article couldn’t have bought you a recruit in the 1970s. Dorhmann doesn’t understand the subject he is supposed to be covering.
So you can buy an elite program within the rules. You can purchase one with good facilities, for example. This is true but not that interesting. What’s ethically wrong with it? What’s the moral outrage? What’s clearly wrong about it? Or at least, what is existentially wrong with it? I have some answers to these questions rolling in the back of my head, but I think you should answer them before you go with the better story. But, answer these questions, and answer them well, and your alternative story can have some punch. And maybe, just maybe, it can be a better story.
“Buy an elite program”? What on earth do you mean to imply with that comment? Are you saying that Boone Pickens has done something unethical by giving money to his alma mater? What?
That there should be rules to ensure that no school rises above the lowest rank, just to “make it fair”?
Your comments sound like envious sour grapes to me, or maybe even a desire for an “equal outcome” regulation for college athletics, so maybe you can clarify them a bit…
I’ve never thought you hated SI, just was pissed at some of the people who work/worked there. And disappointed/angry by squandered potential & the choices it occasionally makes.
I love Sports Illustrated & have subscribed off & on since I was 8. It was my 1st “grown-up” magazine subscription, after I had moved on from Weekly Reader & Highlights & 3 years before I added Seventeen. (Not sure, but I could be the only girl in America that susbcribed to both SI & 17 concurrently back in the early 70s 🙂 ). It upsets me when I read people calling SI a “dying rag”. It is NOT. At least I hope the economic & internet climate does not kill it as they have so many others (mags that is). I re-started my current subscription a few years ago & have read some fantastic pieces since. I watch ESPN, read some of the stuff on their website (although Grantland has by far the better writers & shows up the parent site on almost a daily basis), but SI is still my go-to site for sports articles. As for ESPN the Magazine – sorry jdubs if you’re friends with editors/writers there as I don’t want to insult your buds, but I HATE that waste of a forest. I’ve only purchased it a few times over the years & not within the last 3, but every time I did, I hated the actual paper used, HATED the font, the graphics, the lay-out, that the mag was skewed totally towards 12-24 year old MALES steeped in hip-hop culture, & that much of the articles were not articles at all. (I could go on but you’ve said you mom doesn’t like cursing on here).
Is Sports Illustrated perfect? Hardly. They somehow let you slip through their fingers.
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