Over the last day, one of Sports Illustrated's main sources for the second part of its five-part investigation into Oklahoma State has been under attack. Fath' Carter claimed that he graduated from the university with a degree in education, and, more significantly, that he and former Cowboys running back Tatum Bell "received failing marks" in a class in the spring 2004 "after their eligibility expired." This was important because that same teacher was giving them As, Carter claimed, when they had eligibility.
ESPN knocked a part of this down, reporting:
Fath' Carter didn't have two degrees. Carter attended OSU from 2000 to 2005 but did not graduate, according to the university's office of the registrar.
However, Bell wasn't at Oklahoma State in 2004. He withdrew from school after the 2003 fall semester, according to the OSU transcript he provided to ESPN.
"I withdrew from school after the [Jan. 2, 2004] Cotton Bowl," Bell said. "I was never enrolled in 2004 and never attended classes in 2004."
Oddly, SI has done nothing. It hasn't issued a correction. It hasn't updated the story. And as of this afternoon, SI continues to back up its reporting. ("Sports Illustrated stands behind the work and the investigation," a spokesman said in a statement.) Do they have some documents that ESPN did not have? Were they just ignoring ESPN's claims?
The answer to the second question, at least, appears to be: yes. We have enrollment verification documents from Oklahoma State University—given to us by a spokeswoman who got them from the university's registrar; they took us all of a few hours to get today—that indicate Carter did not graduate from the school. A spokeswoman said that there's no record of him ever receiving a degree. Interestingly, the same documents also undermine Bell's claim to ESPN that he "was never enrolled in 2004." He was.
Carter's matriculation ended on April 9, 2004 after he withdrew, according to the documents. Bell withdrew on April 8. Why are those dates significant? Because according to Oklahoma State's spring 2004 academic calendar, a deadline was quickly approaching to avoid getting an ugly F on your transcript:
April 9, Friday
Last day to drop a course (grade of "W")
April 9, Friday
Last day to withdraw from all courses with automatic "W"
April 23, Friday
Last day to withdraw from all courses with assigned "W" or "F"
It's not made clear whether they were taking multiple courses or just one. And it's very possible that they were "failing" a course before they got their Ws. It seems fairly clear, however, that, as an undergraduate adviser in Oklahoma State's sociology department told us yesterday, they did not actually receive Fs. (That same adviser also contradicted Carter's claim that the same teacher had given them As.) What's especially odd, though, is where ESPN got its information about Bell. ESPN reported that Bell "withdrew from school after the 2003 fall semester," and sourced it to a transcript that Bell gave them. But at least according to the Oklahoma State University registrar's office, Bell was enrolled in the spring 2004 before withdrawing in April.
SI has been getting killed because of some questionable reporting and fact-checking in the lead-up to its five-part series. What's even stranger, though, is that it doesn't seem that SI staffers were all that interested in ESPN's contradicting their reporting. (After I told an SI spokesman about the verification documents we received, he said, "We are looking into the matter.") ESPN's story has been up for over a day, but when I asked an Oklahoma State spokeswoman if she had heard from SI since, she emailed, "I can confirm Sports Illustrated never contacted the university (OSU) about any academic records in regards to the recent stories."
Which is weird, because all of this could have been solved with one phone call.
Update, 5:26 p.m.: An SI spokesman tells us, "We've been in contact with the university beginning earlier today. And we're following up on the matter."
Update, Sept. 17, 4:52 p.m.: SI has added two "editor's notes" to its story. It appears they went online yesterday. The first, regarding Carter's degree: "Editor's note: The Oklahoma State registrar's office says Carter did not earn a degree." And the second, regarding Carter's claim that he failed a class with Bell: "Editor's note: An Oklahoma State spokesman confirmed a report that Carter and Bell withdrew from that class before receiving that grade."