By April, Dohrmann had become convinced that no other reporter was pushing the tattoo parlor angle far enough, so he flew to Columbus and began asking questions. On May 27, a Friday, Dohrmann phoned Ohio State with the allegations his reporting had turned up: that, going back to 2002, significantly more players than had been reported had traded memorabilia for tattoos, including nine who were currently on the team. On Sunday, the university responded to Dohrmann with a statement from athletic director Gene Smith that distanced the school from Tressel. The next day, Tressel resigned.
Dohrmann’s scoop earned him plaudits from the sports journalism community at large, but there were detractors. Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs and Fox Sports’s Jason Whitlock, both outspoken critics of the NCAA generally—Craggs has prophesied its ultimate demise—and of the Scandal Beat specifically, publicly attacked the SI exposé. Whitlock, fomenting on Twitter, called it a “typical slave-catcher investigation,” and mocked what he perceived to be Dohrmann’s and Sports Illustrated’s efforts to take credit for Tressel’s firing. Craggs, in a blog post, said Dohrmann represented a “passel of excellent journalists” who had “turned themselves once again into mall cops for the NCAA.”
Dohrmann doesn’t see it quite that way. “If he means we go get things the NCAA’s enforcement staff doesn’t, he is correct,” Dohrmann says. “If he feels that we are doing the NCAA’s job, this would be like saying The New York Times is the Justice Department’s mall cop.”
Still, Dohrmann has his own misgivings about the Scandal Beat. “Of course the NCAA can change and it does change slightly, and stories that show wrongdoing force small changes,” he says. “Now, every compliance arm in the country is dealing with tattoos. When I wrote about academic fraud in Minnesota, I am sure every school in the country tightened up its academic counseling department. Small changes occur because of the scandal. Are there macro changes, like paying athletes, because enough of these scandals get broken? It is possible. I just have no faith.”
Beyond the Scandal Beat
The paradox that Dohrmann describes—he both defends the work and acknowledges its limitations in getting at the underlying problems—came up time and again in my conversations with Scandal Beat writers.
Rick Telander, the Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist whose 1989 book, The Hundred Yard Lie, argued that big-time college football should remove its threadbare veil of amateurism, puts a finer point on the discrepancy, calling the rules violations the “crumbs of the problem.” He says: “The big muffin is right in front of us every day. We know it and accept it, so that’s where all the craziness starts. We accept the Big Lie, so we are dazzled and amazed by the little lies. I have found that completely self-defeating and really it hasn’t changed.”
In this way, the Scandal Beat sets its own trap. It produces important stories that fit into a celebrated tradition of muckraking and watchdog reporting. They are the kinds of stories that win prizes and generate traffic. Most of the reporters who do them have been reared in an industry whose professional code demands “objectivity,” a sort of bloodless presentation of the facts that, at its worst, can reduce an obvious injustice to a he said, she said cop-out. The result is straightforward coverage of the NCAA and its rules—and the inevitable violations of those rules—rather than coverage that challenges the validity of the rules themselves, and the system that upholds them.
There are journalistic efforts to come at the ills of college athletics from the less sensational but potentially more fruitful direction of economic justice. For about five years, the Indianapolis Star’s investigative reporter Mark Alesia covered the NCAA, which is based in Indianapolis, as a quasi-beat, tailoring his focus to the underlying economic issues, as opposed to matters of enforcement. In 2006, he wrote a series of stories that scrutinized the astounding fact that less than 1 percent of the NCAA’s athletes produce more than 90 percent of its revenue.