In the 1960s, Jack Scott, a former Stanford sprinter who became athletic director at Oberlin College, set out to save college sports by crusading against its over-commercialization and over-authoritarian coaching culture. “Scott really gave voice to a lot of the ills underlying a lot of this stuff and he did it in a very smart and organized way,” says Sandy Padwe, who served two stints as Sports Illustrated’s senior editor in charge of investigations from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. “Slowly, but surely, people began to realize that the only way to get at the root of this problem was do it investigatively.”
But it was in the 1980s that college sports ballooned into the sprawling, hype-besotted business we know today—and, not coincidentally, when the Scandal Beat really took root. A 1984 Supreme Court decision ruled that the NCAA’s television plan—which limited the number of televised football games and the opportunities for schools to negotiate their own terms—violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, paving the way for the explosion of modern college football broadcasting. In 1982, CBS began exclusively broadcasting the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, at a price of $16 million a season (it grew to $55 million by 1988). Last year, the NCAA grossed $680 million from fees on television and marketing rights.
As the money in the newly corporatized college sports world soared, and the NCAA’s rule book grew fatter and more nitpicky, so too did the incentives to break the rules. A post-Watergate zeal in the nation’s newsrooms and the failure of the NCAA’s enforcement arm to keep pace further crystallized the mission of the Scandal Beat. “College sports was fertile ground,” says Armen Keteyian, a former investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated who is now the chief investigative correspondent for CBS News. “It was like a hundred-to-one in terms of scandals to the number of NCAA investigators. They were naïve, and they didn’t have the depth of knowledge to do these kinds of investigations.”
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.”