Admiring and questioning the SI series on Oklahoma State


This morning, Sports Illustrated released the first of a five-part investigative series into the Oklahoma State football program. The first story, released on Monday, centered on how players are paid under the table by both coaches and boosters. Future stories will focus on academics, drugs, sex, and the fallout.

I'm writing this based on only the first story, and I come to both praise and criticize Sports Illustrated. It is possible to do both at the same time. It's possible to admire aspects of the reporting while still raise questions about the story as a whole. There is a lot to learn from this story, and there is a lot to question as well. 

First, the good: This is an undeniably beautifully reported piece. George Dohrmann and Thayer Evans did a spectacular job in the reporting of this story. Notice the details - the specific amounts of money players received, how and why they got paid. When I teach my students news writing, I'm constantly preaching to them "show, don't tell." This piece shows you what happens at Oklahoma State.

Also, notice what's missing - anonymous sources. Everything is on the record. The reporters got players who are willing to put their names to the allegations. That lends credence to the story. In a day and age when reporting based on "sources" seems to be the rule, rather than the exception, it's wonderful to see an investigative news story. The legwork, the time, and the effort that went into this story is remarkable. The nuts-and-bolts journalism of this story is sensational.

Now, for the problematic aspects.

For one, there's no real context given to the investigation as a whole. There's no answer to the questions "Why Oklahoma State and why now?" In a story about the series, SI editors say that the series examines the rise of a program to national prominence, but I don't think that's enough. One of the early criticisms of this story on Twitter has been "Duh, doesn't this happen everywhere?" And while that's no reason to not investigate wrong doing, the story doesn't do a good enough job answering the "Why Oklahoma State and why now?" questions. Is this program representative of a top-tier program? Is this what a program needs to do to become a top program? Is this an anomaly, a rogue program? The story doesn't answer the questions. That's admirable in a way (you report what you know, not what you think), but it's a huge unanswered question that hangs over the story.

Second, and maybe the larger issue, is this: Players being played is presented in this story as a bad thing, a clear violation of NCAA rules. But there is no discussion of the millions and millions of dollars Oklahoma State has earned as an institution, and coaches and administrators have earned as a result of their success at football. It's the classic investigative piece into college sports, detailing how players are getting paid* without asking the larger question - does amateurism make sense in the context of the NCAA?

It's interesting to see a story like this now, when it feels like the tide is turning against the NCAA status quo, both in the public and the media. 

There is a lot to question about the SI piece, and a lot to like as well. It is possible to do both. It's possible to hold contradictory thoughts on an issue. There is a lot to admire about the reporting, the legwork, the writing and the work Dohrmann and Evans put into this story (and presumably the rest of the series). There are positive lessons journalism students can take from reading this story.

And yet ... I wrote this sentence a few months ago, but it seems relevant to repeat it today: Is good journalism that tacitly endorses a corrupt status quo good?