In 2008, Alesia moved to a news-side investigative beat and his work on the NCAA largely ended. These days, only USA Today follows the money of college sports as a matter of practice, annually updating a database of head coach salaries and athletic department budgets. The newspaper’s reporters mine the data for stories that probe the commerce of college sports. Other outlets have only occasionally delved into the economic-justice angle. Two years ago, espn’s investigative program Outside the Lines and ESPN.com jointly produced a month-long series, “Mixed Messages,” which dissected examples of the NCAA’s economic one-sidedness, including the contentions of the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit. In July, espn.com returned to the subject with a five-day series on athlete compensation called “Pay to Play.” And last March, during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, PBS’s Frontline took a whack at the question of paying players. In one poignantly ticklish moment, correspondent Lowell Bergman challenged NCAA President Mark Emmert to reveal his salary on air, which Emmert huffily declined.
Tim Franklin, the former editor of both the Orlando Sentinel and The Baltimore Sun who recently stepped down as head of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University, talks of the need to broaden the sports beat, to bring other perspectives to the coverage. “It is critical for news organizations to have higher education reporters and metro desks looking at this,” Franklin says. “Reporters on financial desks should be reporting on the financial statements of athletic departments. There are thousands of stories in the data in those reports that aren’t being done.”
To the extent this more elemental coverage is being done, it is largely drowned out by the endless stream of titillating details pouring from the Scandal Beat. After thirty years of a Groundhog-Day-like chronicling of transgressions and punishments, a once sober journalistic enterprise has in many ways become a source of entertainment, parceling the failings of intercollegiate athletics into the simple, binary terms sports fans can appreciate: winners and losers, sinners and saints. And as Dohrmann says, “Fans actually give a shit about who is and isn’t breaking the rules.”
Just as the pioneers who built the Scandal Beat in the 1980s sought to bring the values of public-service journalism to the sports department, the beat’s current practitioners face the challenge of how to respond to the difficult truths that their work has helped to lay bare. Because what has become clear is that the most important story in college sports is no longer a sports story at all.