This week, Georgia running back Todd Gurley was suspended by the school for allegedly selling autographs to a memorabilia dealer.
What makes this story fascinating to me is how SB Nation handled the news. Last week, the website received a tip that Gurley had been selling autographs —a violation of NCAA rules, one that got Johnny Manziel in hot water last year. What's remarkable to me is how SB Nation handled it (emphasis added):
After verifying a.) the tipster's identity, and b.) that this person has sold Gurley-autographed gear on eBay under the name provided, we let it drop, because the purpose of this website is not to enforce the NCAA's insane bylaws. On the contrary, we're all for players making money, and are thus editorially supportive of those bylaws' erosion. So we let it drop. That was September 30.
Along with being a remarkable display of transparency in reporting, this was a fascinating decision. They were handed a scoop, a tip about a Heisman Trophy candidate who broke NCAA rules — and they let it drop because they believe the rule itself is wrong. It's a stunning journalistic move. As Awful Announcing wrote, "Is it SB Nation’s job to protect players like Todd Gurley from a broken system and look the other way? Or is it their job to report a story when it comes to them? Is it neither?" In a lot of ways, this decision breaks journalism rules and conventions. It's not typically our job to decide whether or not rules are good or not. Rules are rules. If you break them, you risk exposure and punishment.
This story calls to mind a question I raised on this blog last year. I really don't like quoting myself, but it applies in this case:
Is good journalism that tacitly endorses a corrupt status quo good?
Let's be honest: It's a stupid rule.
There's a real conversation we can have about whether or not college athletes should be paid. Once you get past the amateurism-play-for-the-pride-of-alma-mater argument, there's an honest discussion to have about the logistics, pay scale, gender politics, and athletic and academic implications of paying college athletes (and let's be honest, we're talking about paying football and men's basketball players. The tennis team ain't getting anything). I'm well established where I stand, but there's room to discuss this.
But the dumbest rule in all of this is the one that prevents college athletes from profiting on their own likenesses. From selling their autographs or jerseys. From trading on their fame for goods and services. There's no really reason Tood Gurley, Johnny Manziel, or any college athlete shouldn't be able to make external money based on their fame and their success. If a player wants to sell his autograph, what's the harm? If a booster wants to give players a little extra cash - really, what's the harm? Aside from a nebulous "recruiting advantage," I can't see any downside to this. If academic fraud would be the most egregious of NCAA scandals — since it violates the core mission of the institution — than a player getting a little cash on the side would certainly be the most benign.
I predicted this on the SCRA show this week, but my bet is that within a few years, the NCAA relents and goes to the Olympic model. Players won't be formally paid by their schools, but they will be able to pursue external deals on the free market. I see this, combined with the push toward guaranteed multi-year scholarships and better health care, as where we're headed (and, to be cynical, it provides the NCAA with fabulous cover to avoid the pay-for-play question at all).
There was a fascinating story in The New York Times last month about Gary Hart's aborted run for president in 1988 and the scandal that destroyed his campaign. In a lot of ways, it was a watershed moment for the political press, since it was the first time a candidate's private (read, sex) life became an issue for investigative reporters to dig up. From author Matt Bai:
If you were an aspiring journalist born in the 1950s, when the baby boom was in full swing, then you entered the business at almost exactly the moment when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post — portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the cinematic version of their first book, “All the President’s Men” — were becoming not just the most celebrated reporters of their day but very likely the wealthiest and most famous journalists in American history (with the possible exception of Walter Cronkite). And what made Woodward and Bernstein so iconic wasn’t proximity, but scandal.
It would be hard to overstate the impact this had, especially on younger reporters. If you were one of the new breed of middle-class, Ivy League-educated baby boomers who had decided to change the world through journalism, then there was simply no one you could want to become more than Woodward or Bernstein, which is to say, there was no greater calling than to expose the lies of a politician, no matter how inconsequential those lies might turn out to be or in how dark a place they might be lurking.
This applied to the sports world, too, with a push toward coverage of college sports scandals. Think Raw Recruits, the Herald-Leader's series on Kentucky basketball. Look at my career, which in a lot of ways is defined by covering the St. Bonaventure welding scandal.
Think of this quote, from a few months back, from Pat Forde of Yahoo: "The fact that many newspapers have all but abandoned investigative sports reporting adds to the temptation to cheat without being caught."
Exposing wrongdoing is a core mission of journalism. But when that becomes your focus — sniffing out scandal without contextualizing it — it can get dangerous. You start to seek out the scandal without seeing the whole board. You start to get so caught up in asking about the salacious details of the scandal that you forget to consider the larger questions.
Again I repeat myself: Is good journalism that tacitly endorses a corrupt status quo good?