It happened to the New Republic. It even happened to the New York Times. Reporters high on ambition, but low on effort, or perhaps talent, tried to cheat to get ahead.
And now it may have happened to the "grey lady" of sports journalism.
Sports Illustrated spent 10 months nurturing an investigation into Oklahoma State's football program led by former Fox Sports analyst Thayer Evans. He claimed to have found serious NCAA violations, including academic fraud, player payouts, even sex for recruits. Seemingly the school over several years delved into every shady practice tried in the Southeastern Conference with a few wrinkles used at Colorado for good measure.
In essence, this could dwarf almost every scandal except for Southern Methodist University's legendary offenses in the 1980s.
Most of the time such a story must start with willing and committed sources. They must be named and be counted on to face whatever backlash may come. Some sources are trustworthy, others may have their own grudges against the school. Those with grudges, like prisoners testifying for the prosecution, must be backed by evidence that confirms their stories.
The five part series rolled out by Sports Illustrated unraveled almost from the start because the main pillars of their story turned out to be the interviewed sources. Even the writer's veracity came under fire.
Jason Whitlock, a former colleague of Evans, blasted the writer himself. He called Evans "simpleminded" and said that such a "huge, gigantic Oklahoma homer" could not possibly set aside collegiate rivalry angst to report objectively. Whitlock claimed that although he had no personal animus against Evans, that "It wouldn't shock me if Thayer Evans couldn't spell the word 'cat'."
Former Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden, now with the Cleveland Browns, commented as well to local Ohio media. Far from being worried for his alma mater, he called the story "comical" and said that he "laughed through the whole thing." More importantly, Weeden questioned the credibility of every source, noting that some had been kicked off the team for drugs or other infractions.
Furthermore, most of the named sources backed away from the story and its writers.
Factcheckers looking at the details of the story noted inconsistencies. Sports Illustrated claimed that one of the sources, former safety Fath Carter, held two degrees from Oklahoma State. A check with the university registrar's office finds that he did not even earn one.
If the allegations against the writers are true, it remains to be determined whether the reporting resulted from extremely bad methods or intentional "cooking." Either way, the fallout has spread beyond the story. West Virginia University initiated an immediate in-house investigation of assistant coach Joe DeForrest after it found that the story named him.
The new age of journalism creates more opportunities than in the past. It also spurs more competition. To become a pundit, get on television, spout opinions, and make big money, reporters have to get noticed. Some get noticed because they are attractive and speak well, others because of personality or athletic experience. Of course breaking the big story does not hurt.
Increased competition can make journalists better, but also tempt some onto the easy path from the ethical straight and narrow.
Sports journalism, however, has more than its share of sloppiness, attention seeking, and bad reporting. ESPN's Skip Bayless on the morning program First Take stopped a hairs breadth short of defamation when he insinuated that New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter recovered quickly from injury by using banned substances. He had also once floated the opinion that former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman was gay.
Many media outlets also noted that network's overly obsessive coverage of nomadic backup quarterback Tim Tebow at the expense of actual sports news coverage.
Sloppy reporting can cost players in many ways. Nolan Nawrocki's predraft evaluation of current New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith was called racist in some circles, merely "gutless" in others. Nawrocki relied solely on unnamed sources to present Smith as unmotivated and lazy on the eve of the draft. He related that Smith was texting on his phone while coaches tried to give him direction, when it was more likely that Smith took notes on an electronic device. West Virginia University sources in particular went on the record to describe in detail Smith's obsession with film study and position education.
That report may have cost Smith draft position. A far enough drop could have meant the difference in millions of dollars.
Bad reporting pops up all of the time in other fields. Campaign coverage of Mitt Romney routinely focused on the surface, rarely sought to tell a story in depth. Buzzfeed offered a mea culpa of sorts with its recent story "Was Mitt Romney Right About Everything?" But the reporters on the campaign did not make up facts so much as they overemphasized some and ignored others.
Sports reporting has a few major problems. First, many report and speculate as if inaccuracy or wild accusation has no real consequences. They fool themselves into thinking that it's just a game after all. But they must report on individual lives and reputations, as well as business and administration, the same as if they covered politics, diplomacy, or the economy. The same restraints and rules must apply to reporters all the way up to the editors. Stakes are high, regardless of the fact that a game lies at the center of many stories.
Sports Illustrated and other outlets, in other words, must take reporting and the effects of it with the same seriousness as the Wall Street Journal.
Many reporters get into sportswriting for the love of the game. They want to cover the Super Bowl, tell the stories of athletes, and write about teams. The rise of the sporting industrial complex over the past generation has thrown new worlds into the genre. Sports news outlets need to aggressively court and hire reporters who specialize in finance, political administration and economics. Since the worst of the hacks attempt armchair sociology, they may need to dip into that field as well.
Sports media outlets have done a great job moving forward with technology. But they have not taken seriously the expansion of their purview. Those who got in to write about the big game along with the ex-jocks and coaches can only cover the material so well.
To regain credibility, the entire field of sports media must rise to meet the same standards as the best examples of other media. Also, like the New Republic and New York Times, they must disavow the poisoned reporting fruit that will inevitably grow from their branches.