Sports Illustrated began its series on the rise of Oklahoma State University’s football program by drawing as much attention to it as it could before the series launched — it sent out a press release touting the package, which it released one piece at a time each day last week and on Monday — to make sure the eyes of the sports world were on it. Then, almost as soon as Part One of the series came out last Monday, the series turned into every editor, publisher, and writer’s worst nightmare: it started blowing up in their faces.
The series detailed pay-for-play schemes that broke NCAA rules, rampant drug use and academic fraud, a recruiting program in which hostesses may or may not have been encouraged to have sex with recruits, and a program that discarded players when they were no longer useful to the football team. The problems have been well-documented, and some of the criticism — like that stemming from the series’ journalistic issues — is warranted. SI, for instance, didn’t disclose that many of the players it talked to left the program on less-than-ideal terms, giving them a potential reason to speak out against Oklahoma State. It also didn’t document several of the claims those players made, and those documents proved some of those claims wrong. And its reporting practices came under fire from players who said they were misled about the stories’ purpose during interviews and misquoted in the pieces.
Other criticism, like Jayson Whitlock’s attack on reporter Thayer Evans and the general idea that the series was a “hit job” on Oklahoma State, was not. But even before the journalistic issues surfaced, my problem with the series stemmed from how it was framed. Oh, I thought, Sports Illustrated is going to tell me about money, drugs, academic fraud, sex, and scandal in a major college football program. Then I yawned, because I’ve read this story before, and too many times it looks only at the supposed scandal without any acknowledgement of the prevalence of these problems in big-time college sports and the root causes of them. Nothing about compensation. Nothing about the outsized importance of athletics. Nothing about anything systemic in college sports. And SI’s series wasn’t all that different. That’s why I was shocked to see this Monday afternoon in a contextual column about the series:
When our team of writers and editors conceived of this project nearly a year ago, the goal was straightforward. We weren’t interested in scolding players — and more than 60 of them spoke on the record, independently, and on tape — or casting them as the sole agents of corruption. (The Dirty Game is so much bigger than that.) We weren’t interested in following what one colleague calls the “NCAA scandal train.” (In the last month alone, it has made stops in Tuscaloosa, Chapel Hill, Knoxville and College Station.)
I came across the column, which is worth a full read, because SI writer Andy Glockner, who wasn’t involved in the Oklahoma State reporting, tweeted about it Monday. We (briefly) discussed it and came to a similar conclusion: that this piece, which contextualizes the entire series as not really about Oklahoma State but about the need for reform in college sports generally, should have run ahead of the other five pieces, not behind them. We’ve been taken for so many rides on that “scandal train” that when another car pulls up, this time in the form of a five-part series on OSU, those of us who are weary of the same old ride don’t have much interest in getting on. That isn’t necessarily SI’s fault, but it is something they should have understood. And had this been SI’s primer instead of its conclusion, the series would have started in a different light. Nothing could keep SI from avoiding the “hit piece” criticism, especially from Cowboys fans. But it would have prevented the yawns the series drew from many and the snark it drew from others who wondered aloud if the collection was anything but an advertisement for Oklahoma State — Sex, drugs, and money? Why would any college kid go anywhere else?
But placement of this column wasn’t the only problem, because the series’ five parts weren’t written with that focus either. They read like scandal pieces aimed at Oklahoma State, not at the NCAA and the out-of-balance market SI editors L. Jon Wertheim and Christian Stone described in their accompanying column. Putting the column at the beginning instead of the end may have changed that a touch, but carrying that approach through the entire series would have done even more to advance what was apparently the goal.
“The only way to effect change is by first understanding the way the Dirty Game gets played,” Wertheim and Stone wrote at the end of that column, and they’re right. But framing is important, and from that standpoint, the series was a mess. SI has the power, the talent, and the resources to produce and execute a series that examines the problems with college athletics and the need for reforms even as it remains grounded in the workings of a specific program. This series just didn’t do that as well as it should have. Instead, it felt like another ride on the scandal train, and that was a ride too many people weren’t willing to take again, especially when the series’ other flaws started emerging.