My biggest story, 15 years later

Courtesy Bleacher Report

(This is adapted from my original post five years ago)

Fifteen years ago today, I was breaking the biggest story of my journalism career.

It was March 3, 2003, that the St. Bonaventure University men's basketball team became embroiled in a scandal. I was covering the team for the Olean Times Herald at the time, and covered the scandal from start to finish. It was my biggest story. It won me a national writing award.

In so many ways, it was the biggest story of my life.


ST. BONAVENTURE - Several people in the Reilly Center expressed the same sentiment - Monday was a dark day for St. Bonaventure University.

The St. Bonaventure men's basketball team forfeited six Atlantic 10 wins on Monday because it had an ineligible player, junior center Jamil Terrell, on its roster. In addition, the Atlantic 10 conference declared the team ineligible for the conference tournament, which is scheduled for next week ... 

Last week, Bona declared Mr. Terrell ineligible after the NCAA ruled that he did not meet eligibility requirements for junior college transfers. Specifically, Mr. Terrell does not have an associate's degree, as required by NCAA rules. Instead, he has a certificate in welding.

-Me, The Times Herald, 3.4.03

The story really began in late February. Just before a Bona-GW game at the Reilly Center, the school issued a press release that a question had been raised about Terrell's eligibility. The fact that he had a degree in welding from his junior college had been floating around all season, but it had never been confirmed or pegged on-the-record. Now, this was very clearly the issue.

A few days after that game, I was in Philly, covering the Bonnies' game at Temple. I wound up sitting next to Linda Bruno, then the A-10 Commissioner, who filled me in on the conference's planned hearing that Monday.

On Monday, then-Bona coach Jan van Breda Kolff took his spot on the weekly Atlantic 10 conference call. Mike Harrington, the college hoops reporter at the Buffalo News, was on him from the start. "Did you enlist the help of the University president to declare Jamil Terrell eligible?" he asked pointedly, repeatedly, in a classic performance.* I had already been digging into the story. That call sent me into overdrive.

(Mike later told me that he had been kicked off the call by an overzealous operator who was concerned that he, Mike, was badgering the coach. Ray Cella, the A-10's legendary PR chief, got Mike back on the call within minutes. Mike and I talk about this story on the latest episode of The Other 51)

Later that afternoon, after the sanctions, I tracked down Terrell's junior-college coach, Gerald Cox. He told me that he had sent a letter to St. Bonaventure, and every school recruiting Terrell, that the player's degree was not the equivalent of an associate's degree. "They knew what they had," Cox told me.

I was the only reporter who had quotes from Cox in his story. I'm still damn proud of that.

After doing a lot of reporting, I stopped by my apartment for a quick break. I put on the Empire Sports Network, which was doing a standup outside of the RC. The reporter mentioned at the end of her report that the players were meeting at that moment.

I flashed on a scene a few years ago, when Indiana fired Bobby Knight and the players admitted they considered boycotting a game. "They're voting on whether to play their last two games," I thought.

I went to campus, found nothing. I went to the office, and while putting together the story about Terrell's recruiting and the sanctions, and conducting one of the last interviews with then-school president Robert Wickenheiser (who admitted to being at the center of the scandal), I made calls and found out that, apparently, players were leaving campus for spring break.

The next morning, I had to work a pagination shift for our afternoon paper. I quickly did my page and then got the RC for the scheduled practice. The team was supposed to practice before busing to UMass for a game. I got to the gym, and John Wawrow of the AP was there. He had heard the same rumors. We spent a bizarre day at the gym, trying to figure out who was here, who was gone, what was going on, having players refuse to talk to us, walk through the stands to avoid us, before finally admitting what had happened. Players had left campus. They were refusing to play the team's final two games.

ST. BONAVENTURE — The silence spoke volumes.

At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team was scheduled to start practice in preparation for its Wednesday night road game against Massachusetts. But except for a rack of untouched basketballs, the gym was empty — silent except for the hum of the lights.

The Bonnies never took the floor for practice. They never boarded the team bus for Amherst, Mass.

They ended their season a week early. In a stunning and unprecedented move, the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team’s players decided not to play the final two games of the regular season. The school backed the move, announcing Tuesday afternoon that the team would not play its scheduled games this week against Massachusetts and Dayton. Those games go in the books as forfeit losses.

A once-promising season for the Bonnies ended not on the basketball court but in a conference room in Hopkins Hall with a press briefing.

- Me, The Times Herald, 3.5.03


What strikes me the most, 15 years later, is how different the actual journalism was.

There was no social media. Twitter and Facebook literally did not exist yet. Newspapers were online, of course, but it was very different. This was still a time when the online edition was a complement, a bonus, an extra. It was repurposed content from the print edition.

Looking back at how I covered the scandal, everything was built around the next day's story. They were long, in-depth stories that I'm damn proud of. But the atomic unit of my work was that story. At some point during the day, I sat down with all my notes and crafted a story.

If this story happened now, I wouldn't do that. This story would come together incrementally. There'd be no waiting for the next afternoon's paper. I'd be writing constantly, updating the story with each new morsel of information, keeping things alive on Twitter. When I talked to Gerald Cox, that quote I included above wouldn't have been saved for Tuesday afternoon's paper. It would have been on Twitter seconds after he said it, or at worst seconds after I hung up the phone. The player boycott? That would have been all over social media that night and day. The story in 2003 was crazy and confusing because no one knew what was happening. This story in 2018 would be crazy and confusing because there would be so much noise, between players Tweeting, blogs opining, Tweeters snarking, etc.  In 2003, journalism was story-driven. In 2018, journalism is increasingly process-driven.

That's not to say one is better than the other. It's not to say that the way we did it in 2003 was right and pure, and that today's news is wrong and tainted. It's the way of the world. Things change. Technologies evolve. Paradigms shift. I know there's a part of me that's very glad that Twitter didn't exist in 2003, because it would have made that challenging story even harder to cover. I also know that in many ways, the new technologies would have made my coverage of that story better and more useful to my readers.


I've toyed with the idea of writing a book about the scandal. My wife's told me I should do it for years. Two other books have been written. I played with the idea, corresponded with an agent about it. But it never happened. Part of the reason is that I could never think of The Big Idea of the book. What's the big hook, the big story, the thing that makes someone who doesn't know St. Bonaventure from Bonasera the undertaker want to read the book? I'm not sure. Plus, having helped three professors write books, I've seen the insane amount of work that goes into a truly great non-fiction book. I haven't had that in me. Yet.

In a lot of ways, this story 15 years ago defined who I was as a journalist. It's among the first things I mention when I discuss my career. It's the one story almost everyone knows about, at least in passing. I'm proud of breaking this story, of the work I did.

That my journalism career peaked at 25 is sad in some ways. But that story is what helped me get my next job in Binghamton, which led me to meeting and eventually marrying my wife, which led to our daughter being born.

It was the biggest story of my career. And it helped me start writing the story of my life.

Cable-TV sports and PED framing (Research Wednesday)

Welcome to research Wednesday, a semipregular in which I look at noteworthy and interesting sports media-related research and scholarship.

Today’s Research Wednesday looks at two studies published in the fall edition of the Journal of Sports Media - one about story selection on cable sports networks, the other about the frames journalist use in covering performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

Boosterism or Audience Interest: An examination of self-promotion on sports-network highlight shows by Rich Johnson and Miles Romney

It’s an idea a lot of us around sports media have had for a long time. ESPN, Fox Sports Network, and other cable sports networks use their nightly highlight shows not as a place for journalism but as a place to promote sports — especially the sports the network has a vested interested in succeeding. It’s one of the reasons, we assume, that you see tons of NBA talk on ESPN but rarely a mention of the NHL.

Like a lot of interesting research, Johnson and Miller’s study takes this assumption that we have and tries to figure out whether or not it’s true.

“Do sports networks such as Fox Sports I and ESPN use their journalism programming to promote games, leagues and sports with which they have financial or contractual interests?” they write early in their study, which uses the social responsibility theory of the press, the idea of hybrid messages, and the unique relationship between sports, TV and advertising to examine this question. The researchers conducted a content analysis of SportsCenter and Fox Sports Live between September 2013 and February 2014, a total of 2,105 individual packages.

So … do sports networks use their programming to promote games that jive with their contractual interests?


The NFL dominated SportsCenter and Fox Sports Live, and both ESPN and Fox have significant investments in the NFL. SportsCenter stories that reported on leagues with which ESPN has a contract were significantly longer than those for non-ESPN sports. Stories that appear in the A block for both programs (the lede stories) were more likely to come from sports with which the network has a contract. “Nearly four-fifths of the college items shown on (SportsCenter) were from leagues with which ESPN held the broadcast rights,” they write.

What this study does not address, the thing that the authors note is hard to determine, is whether or not these decisions are self-promotion or driven by audience interest. It’s the chicken-vs.-egg question that feels like the Holy Grail for research like this — are these sports popular because ESPN talks about them, or are they on ESPN because they are popular?

Who Framed the Steroid Issue in Baseball?: A Study of the Frame-Source Relationship in Traditional and New Media by Claudia Kozman

Any study that looks at the use of sources in sports journalism is going to interest me. And Claudia Kozman’s study does so in an interesting way. It’s a content analysis of traditional and digital media outlets, the sources they used to in stories about the steroid crisis in baseball in the 2000s, and how those sources helped frame the issue.

The study analyzes 477 stories from between March 1, 2005 (the start of the Congressional hearings on baseball’s PED problem) and Nov. 6, 2014 (the day A-Rod’s reported confession to the DEA was reported). In all, 12 media outlets were used — Nine mainstream outlets (The NY Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, CBS, NBC,,, and three blogs (as called by the researcher) - Deadspin, The Big Lead and SB Nation.

Kozman found that officials (be they government, sports, or business officials) were the most used source, averaging 3.2 per story. Players were the second most-used source at 2.45 per story, and overall they were the individual group that was quoted the most. Traditional media used four times as many sources as the blogs did and relied much more on sources in their stories than blogs did (to me, this was not a surprising finding).

What is interesting to see is how the sources led to certain frames in coverage. The more a story quoted officials, the more that story was likely to be framed around issues of policy (be it governmental influence or league rules and action). By contrast, the more player sources were quoted, the more likely he story used a morality, medical-scientific, media, and human interest frame. In other words, stories that quoted more players were more likely to focus on the reasons why players took PEDs rather than looking at potential rules and policy issues.

“These findings suggest that sports, as a topic area, are different from most other areas on which journalists focus,” Kozman writes. “Whereas most studies find government officials as the most authoritative source, sports stories put the weight on the players, even in a charged issue such as steroids, one that witnessed major influences outside the players’ circle.”

It’s also a reminder that who sports journalists talk to will have an important role in what story gets written. Sports journalism, like all journalism, reflects the worldviews of the sources used.

*The great thing about research is that everyone has a different view on what they read. I’d love to hear what you have to say. Post a comment on Twitter (@bpmoritz) or on Facebook. Also, if you’ve seen a good piece of research, or want to know about a specific area, let me know!

The power of media narratives and the Bills Playoff Drought

The Buffalo Bills made the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. Perhaps you heard.

Even with Sunday’s excruciating 10-3 wild-card loss to Jacksonville, this was incredibly important weekend for the Bills. By making the playoffs for the first time since 1999, by ending the longest playoff drought in the four major U.S. sports, the Bills have changed how they are perceived and how they perceive themselves. Now, every decision made won’t be framed by the shadow of the playoff drought. Now, the Bills can move on from Tyrod Taylor, or trade up in the draft, or make a free-agent move without having it judged by how it affects their chances at ending The Drought.

Above anything else, the Bills’ Playoff Drought demonstrates the power of media narratives.

So many stories written about the Bills over the past 17 years — from off-season moves, to training camp previews, to in-season moves, to post-season recaps - all focused on The Drought. What was needed to end The Drought? When would The Drought end? Why won’t The Drought end?

What was interesting, of course, was how the Buffalo media talked about the narrative of the drought.

It shows one of the core differences between journalists and media sociologists. Often, journalists treat a narrative as something that exists in the world and they are just reporting it. Media sociologists view narratives as a journalistic creation, something that comes out of the norms, values and routines of reporters and editors.

It’s a chicken-and-egg argument with no correct answer, but it is an interesting way to see the power of narratives in media.

On Wickersham, Wolff and media literacy

First thing this morning, as I tried to warm up in sub-zero weather, I went to Twitter and found the link I knew would be there — Seth Wickersham's look at the growing rifts within the New England Patriots

I marveled at the piece, drank in the details of the growing discord between Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft. I clicked the share button and started to type out praise for Seth Wickersham's reporting.

Then I paused for a moment.

Was this really a great piece of journalism?

Or did I just think it was because I'm a lifelong Buffalo Bills fan and love any notion of things going wrong for a Patriot. Did I think it was good journalism because I liked and agreed with what was said?

You see where I'm headed with this. It's the same questions I've been asking myself all week about Michael Wolff's new book about the Trump White House.

There's an important difference to note - Wolff has been criticized in the past for playing loose with traditional jounalism ethics, while Wickersham's reporting has always been considered above reproach. Wickersham talked about his reporting on an episode of The Other 51 last summer. There is some reason to take Wolff's reporting with a grain of salt. There is no reason to doubt Wickersham's.

When we talk about media literacy, we often talk about it from the perspective of media organizations helping audience members understand how the news is made. But it's just as important for audience members to understand their own biases and their own beliefs. Would I have been as eager to share a Wickersham piece that delved into any dysfunction within the Bills' organization and call that great reporting? I like to think so, but is that true?

Media literacy, in many ways, begins with the audience.

Fast games and talkative players

Years ago, my then-5-year-old niece spent the weekend with my wife and I. I was still a reporter at the time and had to cover a pro tennis tournament one of the afternoons she was with us.

I taught her a trick. Whenever we asked her who I was rooting for, she would say in her tiny 5-year-old voice, “fast games and talkative players!”

That became my default answer for the rest of my career when I was asked who I cheered for as a sports reporter. “Fast games and talkative players.” It was my version of objectivity in sports journalism, of rooting for the story.

But in our examination of the base principles of sports journalism following Tim Layden’s piece in Sports Illustrated last week, it’s important to turn the magnifying glass inward. If I’m going to be critical of other journalists’ attitudes, I should be critical of mine.

So let’s unpack “fast games and talkative players.” On the root of it, there’s no bias there. I’m not cheering for a given team or a given outcome. I don’t care who wins or loses. Yay objectivity!

Not so much.

“Fast games.” That means I’m rooting for a certain type of game. A blowout, most likely. So that means I do not want a game with, say, a lot of pitching changes, or a match without a lot of deuce points, or extra innings or overtime. Even though that may be a better story, or a better experience for fans, I’m tacitly rooting against. it.

“Talkative players.” That means I’m rooting for a certain type of player to have a good enough game and be in a good enough mood to want to talk to a reporter after a game. I also want this player, or players, to say interesting things in interesting ways, instead of cliches. I want players to conform to my ideal rather than meeting them where they are.

Now, big picture — is this a big deal? Probably not. Is my old line a sign of bad sports journalism? I don’t think so. Am I an academic overthinking things? Probably. But while the sports journalist in me hears a funny, flip phrase I said to my young niece, the media critic in me hears someone who wants the events to conform to his narrow desires rather than accepting what happens. That doesn’t sound very objective to me.

Cuba-Rushford vs. Allegany-Limestone: Why the basics matter

From my posts this week inspired by Tim Layden’s piece in SI, it may appear that I’m 100 percent anti-objectivity, against the traditional notions of sports journalism. .

I’m not.

I don’t teach my sports writing and reporting students that it’s OK to cheer for their teams. Quite the opposite. We spend the first part of the course doing the basic, traditional game story. We start the course learning how to cover sports in a dispassionate, fair and (yes) objective manner.


Because Cuba-Rushford/Allegany-Limestone soccer.

See, my first job out of college was as a sports writer for The Times Herald in Olean, N.Y. My primary job was the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball beat writer. I went to Bonas, so this was the classic case of a young reporter having to put his fandom on hold for his job. I like to think I did a fair job covering the team through ups and downs. But it was easier to cover a beat where there were stakes, where there was an emotional investment on both the fans and myself. I knew my coverage of the team would benefit my career, so I cared. I had been a fan of that team, so I knew what it meant to cover them.

But at least half of my job was spent covering high school sports in the Twin Tiers of Southwestern New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania.

That meant covering Cuba-Rushford playing Allegany-Limestone in soccer, along with dozens of other school districts you’ve never heard of playing all manner of sports.

These are sports and games in which I had no emotional investment. My audience did, but I did not.

It’s easy to write about the things we care about.

The mark of a professional is being able to bring that same level of craft to that which we are not emotionally invested in. Because our audience does care.

Which is why we learn the basics. Which is why we learn to put our fandom aside in some cases and report on what we see and what we are told. Maybe that means rooting for a story.

The central question shouldn’t “are you a fan or are you an objective journalist?” Those are loaded terms.

The central question should be “Is your work fair and accurate?”