The most important sports story of 2018 (so far) has been the Larry Nassar scandal.
In the wake of the revelations and the awe-inspiring bravery of his victims coming forward, it’s fair to question the media coverage of this story - or the lack thereof.
There has been coverage. The Indianapolis Star did remarkable work to break this story (one of my students wrote a column last year calling out our lack of collective outrage). But on the whole, there wasn’t much coverage until the sentencing hearing started or even until the sentences were announced. PTI didn’t mention the story once until the day Nassar was sentences, more than a week after the victims’ statements began.
On a recent episode of the The Press Box podcast, David Shoemaker made a very good point that in the Nassar story, there wasn’t a lot of present tense with this story until the sentencing. That was an event, where things were happening in a sanctioned environment. There were poignant statements and a definitive judgment. There were things happening. Contrast this with the lead up to this story, when there were allegations but nothing concrete really happening.
Now, of course, there is a lot happening with this story. The incredibly reported piece from on Outside the Lines showed how deeply this scandal is embedded within the Michigan State athletic department.
It’s easy to point out how people care about this story now that it is impacting college football and basketball, and it’s not wrong to do so. Certainly, there are social construction of news aspects to this idea. College basketball and football are fare more prominent sports than women’s gymnastics, so scandal touching them becomes a bigger story. Also, there is the aspect of a cover up involved, which is always viewed as a bigger story. “What did Izzo/Dantonio/Michigan State know and when did they know it?” is the kind of question that’s catnip to investigative journalists.
But the coverage of the Nassar story has followed a familiar pattern to that of other scandals.
Joshua Gamson has extensively studied media coverage of scandals. His research has found that media coverage of scandals follows predetermined scripts and narratives.
In looking at three sex scandals involving male public figures who were involved with prostitutes (Jimmy Swaggart, Hugh Grant and Dick Morris), Gamson described how the narratives of those stories all evolved from a scandalous act (or acts) into something larger. For Swaggart, it became a story of the individual and institutional hypocrisy of televangelists. For Grant, it became a story of his public vs. private image along with potential relationship troubles with his movie-star girlfriend. For Morris, his sex scandal became a story of disloyalty and hubris.
In all three cases, Gamson documents how the initial scandalous act becomes about something larger - and often institutional in nature. “The emergence of a scandal story is tightly tied to its institutional location.” Writing specifically about Swaggart’s fall from grade, Gamson noted: “In the end, the mass mediated scandal story became one not of an individual's sexual transgressions but of an institutional environment that encouraged inauthenticity and thus hypocrisy."
We saw this in the sports world with the Ray Rice scandal, the coverage of which I wrote a book chapter about a few summers ago. The idea is that a scandal becomes a bigger story once it becomes bigger than an individual person and more about an institution. In my example, the Ray Rice scandal became big when it stopped being about Ray Rice and became much more about the NFL and Roger Goodell. Think about Jerry Sandusky — that became a much bigger story when it became about Penn State (and Joe Paterno).
The same can be seen in the Nassar case. It is becoming a bigger story now that it is less about the horrific actions of one individual and more about the institutions involved.