Journalism did, however, and a handful of investigative pioneers on the sports desk built the template for the Scandal Beat, establishing the methods (hanging around parking lots to find out what cars athletes drove, for instance), the patois (“in violation of NCAA rules”), and the general disposition of the scrutiny. The work, done with great ingenuity and often at great risk—reporters faced death threats while their employers endured lawsuits and subscription cancellations— won its journalistic stripes. Within the decade, two mid-sized newspapers would win Pulitzers for their investigations of athletic departments: The Arizona Daily Star in 1981 and the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald Leader in 1986.
Still, one of the salient points of Jack Scott’s “radical athleticism” movement begun a generation earlier, that the rule-breaking that plagued college sports is intrinsically tied to the commercialization of the enterprise, tended over time to get lost in the cataclysm of corruption that toppled heroes and humbled great universities. “We operated under, ‘Here are the rules and if people are breaking those rules we’re going to report on that,’” says Elliott Almond, an investigative sports reporter for the Los Angeles Times back then who now covers Stanford for the San Jose Mercury News. “We were never entirely reflective.”
The Coach Killer
George Dohrmann’s career provides an instructive illustration of the Scandal Beat’s allure as well as its limitations. Dohrmann, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, started in 1996 as a part-timer answering phones on the Los Angeles Times’s sports investigative desk. Among his first story assignments was to co-author a series that explored the matrix of conflicted interests that suffuse elite amateur basketball in talent-rich Southern California.
While doing those stories, Dohrmann got a tip that Baron Davis, a highly-rated point guard who had recently committed to play at UCLA, was driving around in a suspicious car. Dohrmann went to Davis’s high school to poke around, where he spotted Davis pulling out of a parking lot in a black 1991 Chevy Blazer. As Dohrmann soon reported, the Blazer originally belonged UCLA coach Jim Harrick, who sold it to Davis’s sister two days after Davis signed his letter of intent with the school. Despite what seemed a clear violation of NCAA rules, the Pac-10 Conference (now the Pac-12), of which UCLA is a member, failed to find any wrongdoing on the part of the coach or the school, ultimately accepting their contorted explanation of how the transaction was aboveboard.
“That shaped everything that I have come to understand about how the NCAA works,” says Dohrmann. “We found something that anybody with healthy common sense would say was a quid pro quo and the school managed to explain it away.”
Nevertheless, a month later, Harrick was fired. The official explanation was that he had falsified expense reports to obscure the fact he had taken recruits out for dinner, but it is hard to believe that Dohrmann’s revelations had nothing to do with the decision.
Not long after, Dohrmann left the Times to cover the University of Minnesota for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “You walk in and you assume that the school is cheating,” he says, describing his mindset at the time. In 1999, Dohrmann, then just twenty-six, found the dirt in the Golden Gophers’ athletic department, reporting a series of stories that detailed an academic fraud operation in the men’s basketball program. The revelations won Dohrmann a Pulitzer, and a job at Sports Illustrated, while the school was hit with serious sanctions and its coach, Clem Haskins, received a seven-year ban.
Ohio State’s Jim Tressel would be Dohrmann’s third scalp, though he had more than a little help in taking it.
In March of this year, three months after the press conference announcing the player suspensions at OSU, Yahoo’s Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel broke the story that Tressel had known for months about the gear swapping by members of his team. This touched off a feeding frenzy by other outlets, notably the Columbus Dispatch, ESPN, and the OSU student newspaper, The Lantern.