Sunday, February 17, 2008

A College Football Controversy and Investigative Journalism’s Importance

Sports Illustrated college football writer Stewart Mandel points to an “explosive” Seattle Times investigative series on the 2000 University of Washington Huskies football. In the course of their year-long research, Times reporters Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry found that while the 2000 team was incredibly successful—finishing with an 11-1 record, winning the Rose Bowl, and finishing #3 in final national rankings—“there remained a disturbing level of criminal conduct and hooliganism by the players on that team.” Moreover:

“Former coach Rick Neuheisel and athletic director Barbara Hedges accepted most of it, demanding little discipline or accountability from their athletes. And other community institutions, including prosecutors, police, judges and the media, went along.”

It’s difficult to characterize any one aspect of the series as particularly damning simply because nearly all of it’s damning. Standout (and current NFL) tight end Jerramy Stevens was arrested for rape a month before the beginning of the season, yet continued to play during the police investigation. The case resulted in a dismissal of charges, even though lead detective Maryann Parker mentions that there was “overwhelming evidence” against him. Linebacker Jeremiah Pharms robbed and shot a marijuana dealer in March of 2000, and also continued to play during an investigation that produced a “wealth of information” (in Armstrong and Perry’s words) and eventually led to his arrest and conviction. Safety Curtis Williams—who was paralyzed from the neck down after an on-field collision late in the season—had multiple assault convictions on his record but remained on the team thanks to a decision from the university’s Athletic Financial Aid Committee. One of the series’ only bright spots is the story of linebacker Anthony Kelley, whose trip to South Africa as a junior inspired him to prioritize academics and to later work with other university students on an overseas studies program.

Armstrong and Perry’s work is important because it reminds us of the potential consequences when winning (and potential revenue) supersedes all other concerns at the collegiate level. It’s evident that although Neuheisel and the athletic department had plenty of opportunities to hold players accountable, they largely failed to do so. What’s perhaps even worse is that from a legal perspective, it appears that a different standard was in place for the players mentioned above due to their football background. Yet the response in Seattle to the series has been highly negative, with many fans upset at what they perceive to be an unfair besmirching of the university. While it’s understandable that the university fan base is passionate about the success of the 2000 season, there is no excuse for the creation of a permissive atmosphere for violent crimes, or deemphasizing educational concerns.

On another level, when we consider how budget cuts continue to wreak havoc on newspapers, the Times series is all the more impressive. It’s not surprising that Mandel calls this “the most thoroughly reported, meticulously written investigative project I've read in my nine years covering this sport.” At its best, investigative journalism provides a vital social service that forces the public to consider new ways of thinking. Armstrong and Perry likely knew that their work would be controversial, but their research is persuasive. Moreover, they are uncompromising in their findings, and even criticize the Times for failing to document Williams’ multiple arrests before 2000. The series is a fine testament to their efforts and their paper’s willingness to support such a lengthy and costly project.

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