By Jim Weber
Sports Illustrated is publishing a five-part series on a massive alleged scandal in the Oklahoma State football program that’s already sparked a massive backlash from Cowboy fans, the general public and other members of the media.
We have become so desensitized to college football scandals at this point that the real story here is the blowback against and future of Sports Illustrated, as the 59-year-old magazine has unknowingly gone all-in on its journalistic reputation.
How and why has Sports Illustrated done this? Let me explain the latter first.
While the death of newspapers has received much more publicity, the decline of the magazine industry has been no less jarring. SI’s newsstand sales reportedly dropped a mind-boggling 46% from 2007 to ’12 alone. And between the constant layoffs and buyouts, thinning number of pages in issues and fact it was spun off with the rest of Time Warner’s magazine division, Time Inc., into a separate company last March – in a move equivalent to cutting off dead weight – there are plenty of ominous signs for the gold-standard of sports journalism.
These problems certainly aren’t limited to SI.
If you think the recent sale of The Washington Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for just $250 million was sad, remember that Newsweek was sold for one dollar in 2010 because of its massive liabilities (it was sold again just last week).
I experienced the magazine industry crisis first-hand while working at ESPN the Magazine from 2007 to the end of ’09; the publication did everything it could to slash costs as revenue continued to dip. That included cheaper printing, less hours for employees, fewer employees and relocating from midtown Manhattan to Bristol, CT. I’m convinced the magazine wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t subsidized by television dollars and The Worldwide Leader wasn’t run by a man, John Skipper, who started there.
While the digital side of Sports Illustrated has focused on photo galleries of swimsuit models to jack up page views, Sports Illustrated has made a clear statement that if it’s print arm is going down, it’s going down swinging with its best punch: groundbreaking journalism (a strategy that’s a completely different column).
With that in mind, SI has made a huge push on investigative journalism – most notably with the Alex Rodriguez scandal in 2009. And Major League Baseball aside, what’s more ripe for explosive exposés than the underbelly of big-time college football?
In the last two-and-a-half years, the mag has hired controversial investigative reporters Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans and published pieces on college football scandals at Ohio State and LSU that faced a lot of criticism for everything from possible inaccuracies to allegedly trying to bribe sources (the latter of which was never substantiated).
While both of those controversies have since blown over, Sports Illustrated has just staked its future on the Oklahoma State exposé, which was penned by George Dohrmann (with reporting from Evans). Far surpassing the depth and breadth of the Ohio State and LSU stories, it accuses the Cowboys football program of paying players, sham jobs, ignoring players who dealt and used drugs and sex with recruiting hostesses from 2001-11.
In other words: The Mother Load of College Football Scandals, right up there with the Nevin Shapiro fiasco at Miami (FL).
But don’t be fooled: Sports Illustrated has a lot more riding on the accuracy of this series than Oklahoma State’s football program.
Even if SI is 100% accurate, who knows if Oklahoma State will even be punished by the NCAA at all considering the way the Shapiro investigation has been botched (two years and counting since Yahoo! broke the story…) and the slap on the wrist Oregon received for the Willie Lyles scandal.
On the other hand, the stakes couldn’t be higher for SI as controversy swirls around the series; this is how SI has bet it all on its journalistic integrity.
If Sports Illustrated is spot-on with its reporting, the magazine will reassert itself as the leader in sports journalism. If this exposé was botched, it could push its sales’ decline into warp speed – not to mention open the door for some very costly lawsuits.
It’s obvious to me that at least some of these events took place. But for Sports Illustrated to be vindicated by the huge backlash, its reporting needs to be air tight.
And that’s where the massive potential problems lies. Let me count the ways:
• SI alleged in the first part that 29 former football players were paid. That includes ex-starting quarterback Josh Fields and former running back Tatum Bell, who have come out swinging in their defense.
“Anyone that played at OSU or is from Stillwater knows those guys [quoted] are not credible,” Fields told ESPN’s Brett McMurphy. Five of the players quoted in the report were kicked off the team, which was not mentioned in SI’s story.
• Bell – which the story cited as denying he took money in the report – said on Monday that he wasn’t even contacted by Sports Illustrated.
• Another ex-quarterback, Aso Pogi, supposedly told Sports Illustrated that he lived on the ranch of a booster for free, but said on Monday he was misinterpreted and misquoted.
• Sports Illustrated claimed ex-defensive end Rodrick Johnson told the magazine that teammates openly discussed getting paid by former special teams coach Joe DeForest; Johnson wrote on Facebook on Monday:
— OrangePower.Com (@OrangePowerCom) September 10, 2013
• ESPN’s Jason Whitlock – as he is wont to do – flew off the handle by slamming Evans, his former FOXSports.com colleague, on Oklahoma City radio:
“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.”
I’ve personally been skeptical of SI’s enterprise journalism since Thamel wrote a huge feature on Manti Te’o and the mythical girlfriend Lennay Kekua last year and completely whiffed on her being fake due to lazy journalism. Evans’ reporting of the Cam Newton investigation at Auburn was sloppy and made his hiring by SI a head-scratcher.
It’s Evans’ reporting, not Dohrmann’s writing, that would worry me most if I was an editor at Sports Illustrated.
In Sports Illustrated’s defense, explosive journalism is almost always followed by skepticism and allegations by offended parties of poor and/or improper reporting. Dohrmann is one of the most respected journalists in the industry, having won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize while at the St. Paul Pioneer Press for exposing academic fraud within Minnesota’s men’s basketball program. Dohrmann told CBS Sports’ Doug Gottlieb yesterday that he has Bell, Pogi and Johnson recorded on tape. And you can bet SI’s lawyers went through this entire series with a fine-toothed comb.
But there are a lot of red flags around the first part of this Oklahoma State investigation and just because someone is “on tape,” doesn’t automatically mean they were quoted correctly. With four more parts to come, Sports Illustrated has inadvertently gone all-in on this series with the only real chip it has left after seeing the magazine industry disintegrate: Integrity.
Without a hint of irony, Dohrmann said on SportsCenter on Monday: “… When you have a school that’s sort of hell-bent on winning, on finding a way to win, then that oversight slowly slips away. And so you give in, sort of the temptation to take the shortcuts to build a winning program.”
The question is now being asked: Is Sports Illustrated guilty of the same win-at-all-cost mentality it’s accusing Oklahoma State of?
It’s still far too early to say Sports Illustrated has lost its hand. In fact, I’m almost inclined to be believe it has a royal flush just because the company would be crazy to bet it all with anything less considering the stakes involved.
Because if SI loses this hand of high-stakes poker, it will end up broke figuratively and – eventually – possibly even literally.