As March Madness approaches, two reporters take a withering look at the NCAA

March 10, 2016

“Indentured” is a harsh term to employ in describing many college athletes. But it’s the carefully chosen title of a new book on college sports and, in particular, the role of a goliath overseer, the NCAA.

The book is the handiwork of New York Times reporter-columnist Joe Nocera and New York Times contributing writer Ben Strauss. It’s concerned with a high-profile, revenue-producing slice of college sports: the 15,000 athletes playing Division I football and the roughly 5,500 playing Division I basketball.

Those are the big moneymakers that fund most athletic departments and explain the seven-figure salaries of elite coaches (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski earns $10 million a year). It was thus typical that when the University of Illinois hired Lovie Smith, a twice-fired NFL head coach, as its football coach Monday, he immediately became by far the highest-paid state employee with a six-year, $21 million deal to reinvigorate a moribund program.

That slice is also a window onto the history and operations of the NCAA, ranging from a seemingly imperious and erratic disciplinary system to the riches and challenges brought by a new era of billion-dollar TV contracts (ESPN pays $7.3 billion over 12 years for the new football playoffs) and a thrust by major conferences to increasingly go their own way. In the minds of the authors, the association’s “core value” of amateurism is a sham that prompts various conclusions, including the notion of paying athletes.

Nocera, who lives in New York, has evolved into a crusader for greater athlete rights. It’s not by any fashion a consensus critique. But it follows a stellar career as a methodical and precise reporter and editor, mostly at big-time magazines, including The Washington Monthly, New England Monthly, Esquire and Fortune.

He joined The New York Times as a business columnist in 2005, later moved to the op-ed page and last year found a new home in the sports department. There, he’s frequently reported on and assessed the culture and business of college athletics.

Strauss lives in Washington, D.C but when based previously in Chicago did reporting for two Nocera columns on Ryan Boatright, an Illinois high school basketball star who attended the University of Connecticut. He was ensnarled in a dubious NCAA ethics investigation tied to his recruitment. The help of Strauss was the genesis of the Nocera-Strauss partnership, with the Boatright saga now serving as a vivid prologue for “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA” (published by Portfolio, a division of Penguin Publishing Group).

Unavoidably, their research both relied on past work and offered insights into the state of sports journalism. Having interviewed them at a Chicago Public Library function recently, I tracked them down later and explored their views on sports reporting and related topics.

You just wrote a book on what you see as the corruption of college athletics, in particular a look at the NCAA and the arguable explosion of athletes. In doing your research, what did you find, by and large, when it came to coverage of the NCAA?

Strauss: For a long time, college sports was covered by columnists and beat writers whose main interest was, as might be expected, sports. How the team was doing, which players it was recruiting were the orders of the day (recruiting also continues to be obsessively covered by both large media and a cottage industry of websites).

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t good work done beyond the field. A number of reporters uncovered wrongdoing by individual schools. Mike Littwin and Alan Greenberg (of The Los Angeles Times) wrote an exhaustive series on Sam Gilbert, the longtime fixer for John Wooden’s UCLA basketball teams, in 1982. The Lexington Herald (Leader) blew the lid of Kentucky basketball in the 1980s, for which it won a Pulitzer. George Dohrmann (then of the St. Paul, Minnesota, Pioneer Press) also won a Pulitzer for his work exposing the cheating scandal in the basketball program at the University of Minnesota in 2000. Unfortunately, there was very little reporting done on systemic issues within the NCAA (one exception was the Kansas City Star, which did a tough, comprehensive series on the NCAA in the late 1970s). These scandals were always viewed as one-offs, more about an individual player or coach than about the structure of college sports.

What was, generally, the most glaring matter that most sports journalism missed over the years?

Nocera: The biggest problem with the way sportswriters looked at college sports was their complete acceptance of the idea that the NCAA wore “white hats” and anyone targeted by an NCAA investigation wore “black hats.” Almost every big investigation launched by the NCAA, starting with the (University of Nevada at Las Vegas basketball coach) Jerry Tarkanian investigation in the late 1970s, was worth a deeper look. Sometimes the investigation was justified, for sure. But there were plenty of other times when the NCAA was motivated by vengeance (as with Tarkanian, the investigation of whom was spurred by his public criticism of the association), or unjustified suspicion of a player. And reporters should have been more willing to question all the petty rules that existed in the name of “amateurism” that resulted in severe restrictions on what athletes could and could not do.

The movie “Spotlight” obviously has brought lots of attention to investigative reporting. What about the general level of investigative reporting in sports departments?

Nocera: In the past, the times when investigative reporters took a deep dive into college sports (or the pros, for that matter) were few and far between. But things seem to be changing. The Washington Post recently did a deeply reported series on the finances of athletic departments, and has several reporters who appear to be on the beat full-time. My employer, The New York Times, has dug deeply into the kid-gloves treatment of athletes at Florida State, the corruption of FIFA (the International Soccer Federation), the ongoing concussion crisis in college and pro football and the business of daily fantasy sports. It’s not exactly an epidemic of investigative reporting but it is a lot better than it used to be.

Strauss: I would also single out the work done in recent years by several reporters at ESPN. “Outside the Lines” continues to be a place for meaningful sports conversation. The reporting by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada on concussions and the NFL is absolutely terrific and a number of pieces by Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham have been illuminating about the NFL.

ESPN obviously is a king of the hill in sports journalism. But it also has huge contracts that bring it rights to cover college sports. What would you say specifically about ESPN?

Nocera: Ben just noted the good work done by a handful of ESPN reporters. But, frankly, they are the exception not the rule. ESPN pays billions of dollars for the rights to major league and college games and events. It’s just not in a position to rock the boat in any serious way. It likes its scoops, and it will stick with a tough story broken by someone else. But it also sometimes seems to do the bidding of the leagues. A classic example was Chris Mortensen’s breaking of the “Deflategate” story. He sent out a tweet claiming that the Patriots’ game balls had been far more deflated than was actually the case — information that the NFL clearly fed him to make the Patriots look bad. That tweet has long since been deleted.

What would you say about the broadcast networks? What’s the quality of their reporting. It strikes me that they tend to be rather boosterish.

Nocera: Given the billions that the major networks pay for the right to college sports, it is probably too much to expect them to look closely at the problems with college athletics; that would be biting the hand that feeds them. Every once in a while, you’ll see a national sportscaster complain that an ineligible player is being treated unfairly by the NCAA, but that’s about it. The far more heated criticism tends to be about which teams didn’t get into the March Madness tournament each year. But it also should be said that CBS and Time Warner, which owns Turner Broadcasting, have shows on their other properties that do take on college sports regularly. “60 Minutes Sports,” which appears on the CBS-owned Showtime channel, in unblinking when it looks at college sports, and the same is true of Bryant Gumbel’s “Real Sports” on HBO, which is owned by Time Warner.

Are there some unsung journalism heroes in covering some of the issues you broach in the book?

Strauss: Of course! One of the things we chronicle in our book is how public opinion about the NCAA has shifted in recent years, and a lot of that is because of a new wave of reporters who have cast a critical eye on the NCAA and college sports. Some notable examples: Brad Wolverton at the Chronicle of Higher Education; Dan Kane at the Raleigh News & Observer, who uncovered North Carolina’s sham-classes-for-athletes scandal; Patrick Hruby from Vice Sports; Jon Solomon and Dennis Dodd at; Tom Farrey at ESPN; Taylor Branch, the civil rights historian who wrote a seminal critique of the NCAA several years ago for The Atlantic; and Jay Bilas, the former Duke star and current ESPN broadcaster, who uses twitter and other platforms to regularly castigate the NCAA.

Are there books on college sports that you’d recommend?

Nocera: I’d recommend Murray Sperber’s “Beer and Circus: How Big Time College Sports Has Crippled Undergraduate Education;” “The 50 Year Seduction: How Television Manipulated College Football, from the Birth of the Modern NCAA to the Creation of the BCS,” by Keith Dunnavant (a wonderful, underrated book); “Undue Process: The NCAA’s Injustice for All,” by Don Yaeger, one of the first books to take a tough look at the NCAA; “The Last Amateurs: Playing for Glory and Honor in Division I College Basketball,” By John Feinstein. And of course, there’s “The Blind Side,” by Michael Lewis, which, like all Michael Lewis books, is informative and a joy to read all at once.

Strauss: I’d add “The Hundred Yard Lie” by (Chicago Sun-Times columnist) Rick Telander. It offers a unique look at a college sports reporter. Telander played football at Northwestern and then wrote for Sports Illustrated and became disillusioned by what he saw covering it from the trenches. ‘Meat on the Hoof” by ex-University of Texas football player Gary Shaw was published in 1972. It was the first expose of the life inside a big-time college football program.

Joe, you have spent much of your career as a prominent chronicler of American business. Does your average sports department understand the business aspects of the teams and leagues they cover?

Nocera: Because pro sports have become so complicated financially — with salary caps, and complex ruled resulting from collective bargaining agreements — many sports writers have become quite financially literate, which they must be in order to explain to readers why a team can only afford such-and-such free agent, and so on. There is also a good understanding of the interrelationship between sports and television; a number of news outlets have reporters, like our Richard Sandomir, who cover that beat full-time. What is lacking, for the most part, is a deep understanding of the economics of sports ownership, which is essentially a business story, not a sports story. But it is getting better. If I can add another plug for a colleague: Ken Belson does a terrific job writing about owners and the economics of sports.

Finally, if you took over the sports department of a newspaper or digital news service, what’s your advice on what to cover that now gets relatively short shrift?

Strauss: Two areas of interest come to mind. The first is the relationships between professional athletes, their unions and the leagues. More players these days seem to be politically conscious and are willing to speak out against the idea that they are supposed to simply suit up and play. How they exert their power and if/when they decide to challenge owners collectively or individually remains fascinating (NFL players, for instance, still do not have guaranteed contracts when the league is pulling in $10 billion a year). The other is the role of science in sports. Whether it’s sports medicine or performance enhancing drugs, how science and technology influence the way players train, take care of their bodies (or cheat) will only become more and more important in sports.