The OK State Exposé: An Ex-SI Staffer’s Take
By Chris Mahr
Before embarking on my column, an extremely important disclaimer is necessary.
I spent three years and nine months as a publicity assistant at Sports Illustrated, from April 2008 to January 2012. The reason I decided to leave was to better pursue a career as a full-time writer.
To simply transition from the PR department at SI to editorial was not possible. There were scores of people already there — Sports Illustrated is the type of name-brand publication where recent Columbia Journalism School graduates willingly work as temps — more talented and more deserving of writing opportunities than I was.
I left with my boss’ blessing as well as the best wishes of the editorial staff — many of whom I got to know while doing PR work on their behalf and the occasions when they were generous enough to give me freelance assignments (most of which appeared in SI’s commemorative issues).
In short: I hold no grudges to speak of when it comes to my former employer. An aspiring sports media professional couldn’t have asked for a better first job out of college.
With that out of the way, I’d like to offer my perspective on SI’s highly talked-about, five-part exposé on a seemingly out-of-control Oklahoma State football program based on the nearly four years I spent doing PR for these kinds of stories.
When my boss Jim Weber penned his initial assessment of the OK State piece on Wednesday, he asked for me to read it over — both for copy editing purposes and in the event that I had information to contribute that would make the piece more informed and balanced.
I can tell you all from firsthand experience that when Sports Illustrated embarks on these types of investigative pieces, they make sure that everything is air tight.
I recall spending several hours on Martin Luther King Day in 2011 working with both a member of the editorial staff and the legal department to make sure that a press release on a magazine piece concerning Lance Armstrong’s alleged doping was worded in a way that didn’t leave SI open to subsequent lawsuits. Imagine the measures that they take for the stories themselves.
Sure enough, the facts laid out in that Armstrong story were eventually verified. It was par for the course for the “enterprise reporting” department, the same one that busted Alex Rodriguez for steroid use, got former agent Josh Luchs to detail how he paid college players and revealed rules violations at Ohio State under ex-head coach Jim Tressel.
That was the Sports Illustrated I was familiar with when I worked there. Then they made the mistake of hiring Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans.
When I heard last summer that my former employer had hired two of the most notorious s*it-stirrers in sports media, I was utterly perplexed for several reasons.
For starters, they joined Sports Illustrated mere weeks after 16 members of the editorial staff — many of whom had been there for 10-20 years, if not longer — had been let go. It was clearly a cost-cutting measure in response to decreasing newsstand sales (down 46% from 2007–2012) and the well-documented struggles of parent company Time Inc.
Yet there SI was in late July announcing that Thamel (formerly of The New York Times) and Evans (FOX Sports) — neither of whom could have come cheaply — were joining the staff.
Also curious about the timing of Thamel’s and Evans’ hiring is that it came less than a year after SI decided not to renew the contract of a writer with similar, often less-than-admirable qualities: Selena Roberts.
Roberts had arrived at Sports Illustrated not long after her well-publicized reporting on the Duke lacrosse case for the Times. In addition to blasting the university for “a culture that prohibited snitching,” Roberts also accused the Blue Devils of sexism and racism in later articles. Even after the players were cleared of wrongdoing, Roberts didn’t express remorse for what she wrote.
She enjoyed her fair share of success at SI — she was the lead writer on both the aforementioned Armstrong and A-Rod stories — but was more trouble than she was worth. There were too many instances of questionable reporting (an issue that reared its head again earlier this year with her attempted exposé on Auburn football), and she left the magazine at the end of 2011.
When Roberts left, Sports Illustrated appeared to have expunged itself of a polarizing (and not always factually accurate) writer. Seven months later, they seeming replaced her with two doppelgangers.
And they had no need to. They already had some of the best investigative sports journalists (if not the best investigative sports journalists) in the business — including the lead writer on the Oklahoma State story, George Dohrmann.
As many sports media wonks know, Dohrmann was the last sportswriter - until the New York Times’ John Branch this year - to win a Pulitzer Prize, having been awarded the Beat Writing award while with the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2000 for his work exposing academic fraud within Minnesota’s men’s basketball program. He was the lead writer for the aforementioned pieces on Luchs and Tressel, among many others. (My personal favorite of his is a criminally under-read and forgotten piece from 2007 on a crime wave among athletes at, of all places, Montana State University.)
Dohrmann has journalistic chops that are as big as, if not bigger than, those of Thamel and Evans. What’s more, at no point during the times that I worked with Dohrmann — emailing local and national media outlets about his stories, booking media interviews for him, etc. — did he come across as antagonistic like Thamel and Evans often have. He was a cerebral guy who prided himself not on causing a stir but rather reporting on the facts.
Alas, Thamel and Evans have one thing that Dohrmann (and other Sports Illustrated writers) lacks: Widespread name recognition.
Thamel currently has over 88,000 Twitter followers to his name. Evans’ SI account has just a little more than 11,000 but certainly has name recognition - especially in SEC country after his work on the Can Newton investigation. Dohrmann? He’s at a shade over 9,000.
Knowing that Thamel and Evans held this sway in the investigative sports journalism world and desperate to make a bold move amid flagging newsstand sales, Sports Illustrated lured them away from their respective former employers — seemingly ready to deal with their polarizing ways.
Let’s just say that Thamel and Evans likely won’t have fond memories of their first year at SI.
Last fall, the duo was accused of bribing a source for their cover story on troubled LSU star Tyrann Mathieu to “say things that really didn’t take place.” In addition, Mathieu hired a law firm in an attempt to stop SI’s interview requests.
Thamel’s reputation took another hit in January. After it was made pretty clear in retrospect that Thamel should have spotted the fishiness of Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o’s “relationship” with Lennay Kekua, SI.com was forced to publish the entirety of Thamel’s September interview following the hoax’s revelation.
Now it’s Evans’ turn to have his integrity questioned. When the story first broke, my first thought was how Sports Illustrated could have avoided all of this had Evans not been tabbed to help Dohrmann on the reporting for the story. My second thought: If David Epstein had been the reporter, this would have never happened.
Of all the writers I worked with at SI, Epstein was the most brilliant. He holds a B.S. from Columbia in environmental science and astronomy as well as master’s degrees in journalism and environmental science from the school. He spent several years on the city desk at the New York Daily News, honing his investigative journalist chops.
That came in handy on the work he did on the A-Rod, Armstrong and Tressel stories. (He collaborated with Dohrmann on the lattermost one.) There were many other investigative stories he worked on as well. If the SI staff had any hopes for an enterprise journalism piece, it was almost a given that Epstein would be the one to do the reporting on it, if not serve as the lead writer.
For the Oklahoma State piece, however, Epstein wasn’t available. In August, he left SI for a job as an investigative reporter with ProPublica. Prior to that, he had taken on a reduced work load in 2013 in order to prepare for the August release of his now New York Times-bestselling book “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance” (based on an award-winning Sports Illustrated piece from May 2010).
Thus, Evans ended up as the reporter on the OK State story. It could prove to be a mistake with long-reaching and damaging consequences for my former employer after the massive backlash by former Oklahoma State players in the story questioning the journalistic integrity and accuracy involved in the reporting.
Unfortunately, my time at Sports Illustrated doesn’t give me soothsaying powers to say what’s coming next. I have enough of an attachment to the place and the brand that I’m hoping that all the facts laid out in the exposé are proven true. There’s been enough upheaval there over the past year and change where it feels like they’re due for a much-needed win.
If they’re wrong, I’ll be left wondering what happened to who I used to work for and why.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.