The University of Miami is a Victim of the Transitioning Landscape of Sports Journalism

Vishnu Parasuraman (aka 2003alumgocanes) Follow on Twitter and Facebook

On September 20th, Dan Wetzel joined The Jorge Sedano Show to discuss an article he wrote about why Notre Dame should join the ACC instead of the B1G 10.  But given that Wetzel is employed by Yahoo!, there was some discussion of the University of Miami scandal.  Wetzel was diplomatic, saying that:

  1. It will be interesting to see what the NCAA finds.
  2. That this story is about the administrators and not the players.
  3. This is obviously not a death penalty case (something echoed by his colleague Charles Robinson).

His measured, appropriate, professional interview was in stark contrast to an interview that Charles Robinson gave to a Kansas City radio station where he resorted to calling Jason Whitlock a “coward.”  Wetzel’s professionalism opened the door for a substantive discussion on a few issues that surround this scandal.  There are 2 main points raised by Wetzel that I think merit examination:

  1. There was a substantive debate about what the University did and did not know and what it should and should not have known with regards to Shapiro’s behavior.
  2. There was a discussion of the media reaction to the story.

What should the University have Known

This is really where the penalties will come from.  Yahoo! absolutely caught the University red handed in one instance.  Nevin Shapiro was an officer in a sports agency.  Now, according to Michael Huyghue (the President of the agency), Shapiro’s role was symbolic and he had no actual interaction with the agency operations.  But, Yahoo! claims that the University knew and notified Shapiro, yet failed to take further action.  If that is true, it is a major violation.  If Shapiro hid his involvement (much like he hid most of his life), the University might be able to argue that it was reasonable to not know.  As Wetzel says, it will be interesting to see what the NCAA finds.

Another point made by Wetzel and used repeatedly by others to criticize the University is that Shapiro allegedly berated an Athletic Department compliance officer after a loss.  This is where I have to question Yahoo! and anyone else holding this up as a red flag.  It is instead a red herring viewed through the benefit of 20-20 hindsight.  We now know who Nevin Shapiro is, so it is easy to say that University should have distanced themselves from him.  But at the time?  He was a respectable businessman who got drunk at a game.

Unfortunately, a reality of college athletics is that boosters pay a lot of money for access.  Some college coaches are paid directly by booster clubs.  In 2006, after Miami lost at Louisville by 24 points, an irate fan chased former Athletic Director Paul Dee into the tunnel after the game and berated him.  Not a single person at the time said that the University needed to keep this fan away from the football team.  In fact, the fan became a cult hero.  For Wetzel or anyone else to claim that Shapiro allegedly yelling at school official should have been a warning sign is disingenuous, making it seem as if it is rare for a high level booster to get drunk at a game or express frustration to an Athletic Department employee, when it is actually common.

The Media Reaction

Wetzel criticized the media reaction, specifically that the focus was on the players instead of the administrators.  He also pointed out that the current players were good kids who committed very minor violations (he failed to note that Yahoo! accused these same players of much, much more than they were found guilty of and that one of the players Yahoo! accused was exonerated.  You can see the details in the chart here).  But he does raise an interesting question: Is Yahoo! responsible for the media reaction that followed their article and the focus of that reaction on the players?

My answer to that is yes, mostly.  They are certainly not responsible for some of the media laziness surrounding the death penalty claims and comparing their allegations to the SMU scandal of the 1980s, especially given that Robinson and Wetzel told anyone that would listen that this doesn’t come close to rising to the standard of a death penalty case.

But they are responsible for sensationalizing their story.  There is a good, hard-nosed story here about violations that might have occurred around a sports agency’s involvement with a booster and recruiting violations.

Instead of focusing on that and what they had hard evidence on (and there is some here), Yahoo! went for the home run and turned this into a tabloid story. They printed a ridiculous abortion claim that is obviously unprovable and has no probative value.  They used literary tricks like listing out all the information they looked at (not used, but viewed) in doing their research.  They mixed a few pictures of apparent violations with many, many innocent pictures (pictures at awards banquets, pictures post-graduation, signed pictures which anyone can acquire, and sometimes even just pictures of Shapiro’s house).  They repeatedly stressed the cost of Shapiro’s house and boat (“entertainment in Shapiro’s $2.7 million Miami Beach home” and “Shapiro’s $1.6 million yacht and personal watercraft”), something that was completely irrelevant to the story.  Saying, “Player X went to Shapiro’s house and went on his boat” doesn’t resonate as much.

It wasn’t as if it was unreasonable to expect Yahoo! to exercise discretion.  The Miami Herald outlined the involvement of 3 organizations in this probe:

 ### Before Yahoo! gave a forum to Shapiro’s allegations, two networks apparently passed on the story.

Shapiro met several times with ESPN’s Kelly Naqi, but their 10 hours of conversations were off the record, and ESPN decided not to pursue it. Shapiro has said he met with HBO’s Real Sports, which a network spokesperson could not immediately confirm.

 ### Some background on our coverage: Because the story was deemed newsworthy, the Miami Herald reported last August that Shapiro was threatening to write a book alleging his involvement in NCAA rules violations at UM. But when Shapiro last fall gave The Herald specific allegations against two players (Randy Phillips and Antrel Rolle), The Herald did not report it because there was no corroboration to justify impugning two players by name.

Shapiro said he could offer only pictures of himself with the players, which did not prove NCAA violations.

Shapiro offered allegations against only the two players in his discussions with the Herald last fall because he said he was saving the rest for his book. Because The Herald did not immediately report those two unconfirmed allegations as he would have liked, Shapiro instead eventually decided to work with Yahoo!

He ultimately gave Yahoo! allegations against 72 players, earlier this year, when a book deal did not quickly materialize.

That is a fascinating accounting of the story’s genesis.  3 news organizations passed, with the Herald explicitly refusing to run an accusation based on photographic evidence.  Shapiro got upset because he wanted to cause as much carnage as possible (he has a vendetta against the University and is hoping they get the death penalty).  Yahoo! not only ran accusations based on photos, they also ran accusations with no corroborating evidence and in one instance that we know of so far, wrongly accused a player.  Don’t you forfeit the right to absolve yourself of responsibility for the reaction to a story when you choose to play up the salacious details, wrongly accuse players, exaggerate other claims, and take a kitchen sink approach to what is included in a story?  Yahoo! lit a match, left it next to a can of gasoline, then blamed the wind for the inevitable explosion.

This applies to the focus on the players as well.  This is how Yahoo! chose to present the story:
At the top is the list of 72 players, at the bottom are the handful of staff and coaches.  You can click on the player’s names to get the rap sheet for that player (which, as mentioned, often provides very little direct evidence).  I wonder why the media focus was on the players.

Welcome to the Tabloid Takeover

While I disagree with many of the methods Yahoo! used, I understand it.  Their job is to make the story as big and scandalous as possible.  I wish that wasn’t the case, but that’s the way all media works now.  The Associated Press, long the standard for fact based, dry news reporting now writes opinion pieces.  Yahoo! reported the story the way that stories are reported in the 21st century.  The Miami Herald passed, but Shapiro knew he could venue shop until someone ran his accusations.  The real question here is not around what Yahoo! chose to include in the story, but how they went unquestioned by almost everyone (Jason Whitlock notwithstanding).  2 incidents from outside the sports world show a large contrast between the sports world and the general news world.

Dan Rather Reports…for HD Net

Dan Rather remains one of the most respected newsmen in American history.  He became famous as the man who replaced Walter Cronkite as the face of CBS News.  In 2004, in the heat of the Presidential election, Dan Rather ran a story accusing President George W. Bush of dereliction of duty while he served as a member of the Texas National Guard during the Vietnam War.  As proof, Rather offered up the so called Killian documents.  Upon examination, the documents appeared to use a font that was not available on military typewriters in the 1970s.  The documents caused the entire story to be dismissed as the mainstream media picked up on the inconsistencies and questioned Rather and CBS News.  CBS was forced to retract the story, 4 producers were fired and/or resigned, and Rather himself was forced into early retirement.

This is an important analogy for 2 reasons:

  1. It was long suspected that President Bush’s behavior was questionable during the Vietnam War.  The bias leaned towards believing the story, and the actual story might even have been true.
  2. It was a chronological inconsistency that caused the story to collapse.

Both of those items are present in the Miami story.  Bias leans towards believing that Miami is guilty of violations.  And in the Miami story, there is a huge chronological error in one of the most damning accusations.  Former basketball coach Frank Haith allegedly arranged for and thanked Nevin Shapiro for delivering $10,000 to recruit DaQuan Jones in order to secure Jones’ commitment to Miami.  Yahoo! alleges that this payment took place in the summer of 2008.  The only problem is that Jones committed in November 2007.  In a mainstream political story, Dan Rather’s career was ruined because of the font of a document, yet here an impossible chronological accounting of events is left unquestioned.

It’s a case of sports media substituting their biases for fact and not wanting to think critically on this matter.  I have a sneaking suspicion that if the same accusation had been made against Coach K at Duke, and the chronology made the story impossible, the media wouldn’t have used the word Pulitzer to describe the story and Dick Vitale wouldn’t have called for Duke’s school president to resign.

The Sarah Palin book

Recently, Joe McGinniss published a book about Sarah Palin called The Rogue.  This book details scandalous, salacious allegations about the life of former the Vice Presidential candidate.  But the book was panned.  The New York Times (hardly a friend of Palin) criticized the book, saying it “chases caustic, unsubstantiated gossip.”  Boy, that sounds an awful lot like this:

Abortion: In one instance, Shapiro described taking a player to the Pink Pony strip club and paying for a dancer to engage in sex with the athlete. In the ensuing weeks, Shapiro said the dancer called one of his security providers and informed him that the player had gotten her pregnant during the incident. Shapiro said he gave the dancer $500 to have an abortion performed, without notifying the player of the incident.

“I was doing him a favor,” the booster said. “That idiot might have wanted to keep [the baby].”

This accusation is the definition of what the New York Times described in the Palin book.  Yet, in the sports world, not only was this unquestioned, but it was also used as a sign of an out of control program (it is also another example of why Yahoo! has to take responsibility for the media reaction spiraling out of control.  They chose to print an uncorroborated, impossible to prove abortion rumor.  I will give them enough credit to assume that they were aware that abortion is a hot button issue in this country and that printing that allegation would likely cause an explosive media reaction that would quickly spiral out of control).

Yahoo! not the only people guilty

Soon, other media organizations joined in on ridiculous reporting.  The Miami Herald reported that all 72 players accused by Yahoo! were going to be subpoenaed.  This story IMMEDIATELY should have raised several red flags given that lawyers tend to blow smoke in order to get publicity:

  1. At the time of the accusation, we were actually able to confirm that no subpoenas had been filed against the players.  That might or might not still be the case, but I am certain The Miami Herald could have checked that as well, given that we, with no resources, checked it.
  2. We talked to a bankruptcy attorney who claimed the threat of 72 subpoenas was ridiculous.
  3. Many of the gifts can’t even be quantified.  They are dealing with a $930 million bankruptcy case.  Do you really think someone trying to get to the bottom of a complicated fraud case is going to subpoena someone for this?
  4. The number, 72, was Yahoo!’s number.  Any person can look through all the information and figure out their own number of players involved.  The NCAA actually exonerated 1 player that Yahoo! accused.  The chances of this lawyer arriving at the exact same 72 number are extremely small.
  5. And, not to drudge up horrific events, but 2 of the accused players are no longer alive. Subpoenaing them might prove difficult.

Yet none of this due diligence was done and the story was printed, adding kindling to the fire Yahoo! started.

In a mainstream news or political story, none of this would have been acceptable.  When the NCAA findings largely disproved the Yahoo! allegations on the current players showing that they were blown out of proportion and in one case a player was wrongly accused, Yahoo! actually celebrated that as if their story was accurate.  In the middle of that story, Yahoo! buried the line, “Defensive end Marcus Robinson was investigated but not penalized by the NCAA.”  Shouldn’t someone ask Yahoo! why they falsely accused him?    And shouldn’t someone also ask, to take 1 example, why Yahoo! accused Jacory Harris of the following:

yet he was only found guilty of $140 in violations?  If this was politics and they wrongly accused a political candidate, questions would be asked, Charles Robinson would be criticized.  Yet here, nothing.

But why?  Why is sports different?  There is plenty of great reporting in sports.  You don’t have to look far to stumble into The Atlantic’s Taylor Branch’s amazing piece on the NCAA, CBS Sports’ Ken Berger’s excellent coverage of the NBA lockout, or Yahoo!’s Dan Wetzel’s article about the ACC as a potential landing spot for Notre Dame.  All 3 writers intersperse fact and opinion to arrive at a conclusion.  You don’t have to agree with them, but these are smart, well written pieces.  So, sports writers are capable, and yet they often fail to exhibit those capabilities.

Comfortable in the ambiguous

My theory on why Sports treats these stories differently revolves around two things:

  1. This is still relatively new to sports.  Yes, there have been scandals.  But the TMZ/paparazzi approach is new.  A book by Jeff Pearlman alleges that Walter Payton had a girlfriend (keep in mind that he was separated from his wife at the time) and that both his girlfriend and wife attended his Hall of Fame induction.  Can you imagine no one finding that out in today’s media?  Alex Rodriguez couldn’t get on an elevator with a mistress without getting caught.  To sports purists, this still feels new and many, myself included, are not sure what to do with this stuff and frankly would prefer that the focus stays on the field.
  2. Sports media, journalists and commentators are very comfortable living in a world of ambiguity because they have to.

The second point is the most important one.  Sports commentators and media are often forced to deal with incomplete data and form conclusions based on that.  Paul Bessire has created a computer simulator to predict the outcome of football games in relation to the spread.  In order to accurately (or fairly accurately) predict outcomes, the simulator “plays” each game 50,000 times.  That is how statistical simulations are done.  An event is repeated 10s of thousands of times and then the likely outcome is determined.

In sports, the sample size is never large enough to actually attain statistical certainty.  You can be informed and be proven wrong.  Because of this, isolated events which could be outliers are instead the truth of what actually happened, and commentators are forced to explain those events.  That’s how Tony Romo, over the course of 4 weeks, can go from choke artist, to gritty competitor, to leader (look, he’s yelling at his teammates!), and back to choker.

It’s also why we love sports.  They are so unpredictable.  We’ve all been forced to miss a game then desperately tried to avoid finding out the score until we can watch it on delay.  We do that because sports thrives on uncertainty.  If you know what is going to happen, the game is ruined.

Yet after every game, we go to a panel of experts who know more about the sport than anyone watching, and we ask them to explain the unexplainable, where saying “bleep happens” is unacceptable.  So those experts instead do their best.  They take the amount information in front of them, and they come up with some conclusions as best they can.  This also causes the truth to constantly evolve in sports.  Peyton Manning can’t win a big game, until he wins the Super Bowl.  Alex Rodriguez chokes in the postseason, until he wins the World Series.

This is a necessary evil that contributes to making sports great.  But when that same standard and process is applied to a news story, it falls woefully short and you end up with ridiculous pieces like this being written.  As these stories continue to come out (and they have since the Miami scandal broke), it is important for the sports media at large to adjust how they handle these situations.  This is not a game, it is not a world where the truth is constantly evolving.  It is accusations against real people, effecting real people, tarnishing real people’s reputations.  Getting the dates wrong while putting  black mark on Frank Haith’s resume and wrongly accusing Marcus Robinson is abhorrent.  Being mostly right (Prediction Machine brags that it gets 69% of its picks of the week correct, which is an amazing number) is great in sports, but is horribly wrong in real news.  The sports media can, should and will adjust as this becomes more commonplace.  Until then, we will just wait for the next scandal to spiral out of control and see who is next to get buried under an avalanche of knee-jerk reactions.

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