The Sports Illustrated investigative series looking into Oklahoma State’s football program is over. Tuesday afternoon, editors Chris Stone and Jon Wertheim answered questions for about an hour from readers on Deadspin.
Here’s a transcript of the virtual interaction.
Question: Why OSU?
Jon Wertheim: The point wasn’t to take down OSU. The point was to really study and understand the business and the entire process, from recruitment to finish. I think most people work on the assumption that big-time college sports is a flawed enterprise. (To some it’s inconvenient; to others it’s indefensible.) There are plenty of opinions. Revenue sport athletes should be paid! No way, they’re lucky to have a full ride and a fancy tutoring center! The NCAA defenders will tell you that compensate is a non-starters… Everyone from the New York Times op-ed page to the South Park creators have weighed in on this. Our point: how do you have the informed discussion without really understanding the “factory” and the inefficiencies, how it also plays out and what some of the consequences are?
Question: If your goal was to expose college athletics, why did you feel the need to sacrifice Oklahoma State at the altar of the NCAA in the process? Why not pick five or 10 different schools to highlight
Chris Stone: The goal of the series was not to sacrifice OSU, but present what happens at OSU as the symptom of much greater systemic problem. The investigation was not about rules violations or sanctions or NCAA Bylaw 18.104.22.168 It wasn’t about OSU players smoking pot; it was about the institutional sham of treatment programs that aren’t interested in treatment or counseling. It wasn’t about OSU recruits getting laid. It was about raising the question of whether a hostess program is intended as a sorority in service to the football program. It wasn’t about players as the sole agents of corruption. It was about asking whether college football programs are set up to develop any other future skills than being a football player.
Question: So, this was all to reveal to the masses that football factory schools produce football players incapable of much of anything else? Is your next article going to tell us that the sun is expected to rise for the next couple of billion years? I’m fine with that if you had announced that at the beginning of the series, but to announce that now seems so…revisionist. Look, I think you would have a hard time not finding a serious sports fan who agrees that the NCAA system is broken, as evidenced mainly in football and basketball. But why do it this way? Why single out a program? Was your goal to effect change? Then why not take on the all powerful Oz itself in the NCAA? Sorry, I just didn’t get it.
Chris Stone: You can’t have a meaningful discussion about college sports, let alone meaningful change, unless you know what the sleaze looks like. It’s not enough to say “I know it exists.” There are plenty of people, well-intentioned people, who think you can philosophize in a vacuum and effect change. You can’t. Everyone is doing it everyone’s favorite cudgel. But it also remains the best argument for continued reporting about the system, no matter how numb people have become to it, whether it’s OSU, Miami, North Carolina, etc.
Question: Seeing how this played out, would you do anything differently? Would you break it into five parts? Would you have put that editors’ note (or the bookend or the coda) at the beginning of the series instead of the end? 19 minutes ago
Chris Stone: It’s fair to ask whether framing the story at the start would have influenced people’s perception of our intent. That, however, is arguing semantics/strategy. The message, in the end, is the same whether that you read John’s and my story last Tuesday or today.
Question: Was anyone concerned about the conflict of interest in having Thayer Evans spearhead this project when he was clearly looking at a rival of a program he roots for?
Jon Wertheim: On Thayer Evans: Yes, he is from Oklahoma. He has a history with the school and the state. But should this disqualify him from covering OSU? Often, it’s the opposite. We all come from somewhere. Before moving to a national outlet, we come from Area X (in my case, it’s Indiana) and that’s where you have sources and familiarity and institutional memory. Thayer had tips and leads. When he was given the green light to pursue, he came back with recorded, on-the-record interviews with former players and assistant coaches. Some agreed to speak on camera as well. In our judgment the wealth of sources overcame any potential perception of bias.
Question: How do you respond to Jason Whitlock’s accusation that Thayer Evans specifically went after OSU because he’s an Oklahoma fan? And how do you respond to all of the players who said that they either never spoke to these reporters or that they were grossly misquoted?
Chris Stone: I thin Jon answered this elsewhere about the so-called Evans bias. What I’ll add to Jon’s comment is that we had more than 60 sources on the record—not anonymous or confidential, but on the record and taped, many of them who were interviewed more than once and many of whom corroborated others’ stories.
Question: You guys have made clear what your intentions of the series were, and they are valid, reasonable points to address and investigate. However, the authors of the piece wrote something that is completely different than what you two have said the piece was meant to be.
Chris Stone: I respectfully disagree.
Question: So I read the sex thing and there was absolutely no controversy there. You even admitted that the vast majority of hostesses did not sleep with players. You had one scurrilous accusation that a low-ranking assistant had directed them to but no evidence of organizational intent. So what controversy were you trying to ignite there? I didn’t see anything that would scandalize me. But there was something in there that might scandalize other people. Namely, the mostly white female student body sleeping with mostly black football players. So was this just a gross attempt to play to racial fears of some of your readers? Because that’s the only angle I see here.
Chris Stone: Bobby: see response to Kyle Porter. We’re not bug-eyed with shock over the hostess program. But the story did raise the question that the program was being used as a sort of sorority for the football program. Nobody’s objecting to sex on campus or within the football program. But if you’re institutionalizing it in a sleazy way, it’s fair to ask why.
Question: You talk about how “flush” the college football game is with cash, and mention the need for reform, but the first part of the series, titled “The Money,” didn’t include any figures detailing how much money the university is making off of the players. Do you think that might have provided readers with a more complete picture of the situation, so that they could make an informed conclusion about whether the cash being paid to players is or isn’t justified? About whether the bigger problem is that players are receiving under-the-table money, or that they have to go under the table to get it?
Chris Stone: In the magazine, but not in the web version apparently, we did have a chart detailing OSU’s football revenue growth over the years covered in the series.
Question: Is the negative-ish reaction — from Deadspin, among others — typical of the larger reaction, or just a small part? For all the hang-wringing, everywhere, over typical college football culture, do people still believe in the institution, in general?
Jon Wertheim: It’s a good question. At some level it’s personal. What is your threshold and what is your level of outrage? As we wrote in our piece the other day: 100,000 fans showing up weekly for an exercise in communal adoration is an odd way to lodge a protest against a system so many feel is in desperate need of an overhaul…I think the analogy – which I heard a lot lately – to head injuries in the NFL is flawed. No one is in favor of head injuries. With NCAA sports, what bothers some of us (me? the exploitation and the vast wealth being generated by unpaid labor) doesn’t bother some fans in the slightest. (“Hey, they’re getting a full ride and exposure? Isn’t that enough?”)
Question: Why was the decision made to go forward with this series when there was clearly no evidence other than hearsay from disgruntled players? What was the point?
Jon Wertheim: It wasn’t hearsay. But I’ve heard this a few times : “Why did you only talk to the losers and the malcontents?” a) A program recruited these guys and gave them scholarships. They weren’t losers when they wore the uniform. B) that the college athlete who—for whatever reason—is expelled from the Kingdom of Jock, stripped of the perks, often stripped of his scholarship (or in no position to pay tuition), who was often unfit for college in the first place is now bitter, unemployed, in trouble with the law, and fractured (perhaps beyond repair) was one of the central themes of the series.
Question: ESPN did point out several errors in a few of the stories. Although the errors may not have been vital to the story, doesn’t it show a lack of research done?
Jon Wertheim: There were two errors – which were obviously two too many – that have since been acknowledged and corrected. The ESPN story, as Deadspin pointed out, was not free of error.
Question: What was the team’s response to the factual errors in the series(mostly related to people not being enrolled when SI said they were) uncovered by outlets like ESPN, Deadspin and KOTV? How did these errors get through the fact checking process at SI? Enrollment and graduation information is public record and not a violation of FERPA.
Chris Stone: There were errors in the story that we’ve acknowledged (and regret) in the story with corrections. As for the fact-checking process, which has come up in other comments and one that asks why we only have 2 fact checkers as opposed to the 15 we used to have. We have 15 fact checkers on staff, nine of them full-time and they are very good. Five of them were assigned to the OSU series. One more word about the fact-checking today versus the so-called The Golden Age of SI Fact-checking, which I guess Jon and I belonged to. I promise you that the fact-checkers at SI are every bit as smart, rigorous and diligent as they were 20 years ago. There’s an irony to stories about fact-checking built around the premise of “this is the way we did it 20 years ago but this is way I’m guessing they do things now.”
Question: Why do some people think college football players are being “exploited” since they aren’t paid even though most college football programs lose money? Is it because of our society’s jock worship that says athletes should always get whatever they want?
Chris Stone: There are plenty of benefits that players receive and we don’t discount the value of a scholarship, but the business model is so much more flawed. It’s created a black market—which nobody will deny exists—that puts you at a competitive disadvantage if you don’t participate. And that’s really the primary purpose these programs to exist, to win, to exploit every competitive advantage that you can. In the freer markets of pro sports, you don’t have this issue because it’s based on an actual logical business model.
Question: What was that all about, you ask? It was all about selling magazines.
Chris Stone: A big misconception about scandal, at least through the SI prism: it does not pump up magazine sales.
Question: When do you plan on starting a similar investigation and expose for the Florida program under Ron Zook and Urban Meyer?
Jon Wertheim: There were a lot of these. “Why didn’t you write about the [insert corrupt practice] at [insert another school]?” At some level this was our point. It’s a corrosive culture out there. Rather than play the role of the dutiful hall monitor, the goal was to send reporters to write a representative story.
Question: Can we hear the tape of the Aso Pogi interview? Can we hear taped of any/all recorded interviews?
Chris Stone: We disagree with Aso’s recollection. The tape shows that he invited the writer into his office. The writer immediately identified himself as a writer for SI and established what he was there to talk about.