Why SI's Oklahoma State Series Sucked: The Inside Story

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On Wednesday, Aug. 28, Sports Illustrated senior writer George Dohrmann placed a phone call to Oklahoma State's public relations office. He said that the magazine was about to publish a series of stories about what he characterized as "disturbing allegations" involving the OSU football program. An in-person meeting with university officials was arranged for the following week. It would be SI's way of laying out what it was about to publish, and would give OSU officials a chance to respond.

What went on in that meeting recapitulates in miniature the process by which SI assembled its investigation into OSU.

SI, as it had throughout its reporting, showed little interest in the perspectives or information of anyone not directly involved with the football program—surprising, given that the supposed purpose of the investigation was to provide a "deeper, longitudinal" view of how big-time football can corrupt an academic institution.


The magazine also declined to give OSU the opportunity to address specific claims or corroborate basic information about players, coaches, tutors, and professors. Partly, this was a tactical decision by journalists not wishing to leave footprints all over Stillwater while reporting a sensitive story, but it would backfire when it turned out that a key source's claims could have been refuted with a simple phone call.


Finally, sources from both SI and OSU confirm that OSU directly raised concerns about the objectivity of SI reporter Thayer Evans, whom school officials feel is biased against OSU. Dohrmann addressed those concerns in the meeting, but there's a disagreement over how both sides interpreted what exactly Dohrmann may have said.

The first part of "The Dirty Game" wouldn't appear online until Sept. 10, and the dead-tree version wouldn't hit newsstands until later that week. But the story of how SI's series went awry begins here, in a conference room in Oklahoma State's administration building, where the magazine's reporting more or less ended.


"There were indications that this was percolating," an Oklahoma State source who attended the meeting told us. As far back as January or February, word began to get around Stillwater that a reporter had been knocking on doors and asking questions, and that a female reporter had been asking questions of members of the Orange Pride, a hostess program whose members occasionally had sex with potential recruits, according to SI.


And on May 8, the school's communications office got a curious request from SI.

My name is Gabriel Baumgaertner and I am a writer/producer at Sports Illustrated. Attached is a Freedom of Information Act Request concerning Oklahoma State student-athlete drug policy. I am submitting these requests to other Division I/FBS athletic departments across for a research project. Thank you very much and feel free to reach out.


On June 4, OSU granted the request—inadequately, SI felt. On June 5, Baumgaertner emailed OSU communication specialist Brittney Rochell:

Forgive my frankness, but I find it very hard to believe that those records are unavailable, and I am concerned that my FOIA request is not being taken seriously. The University of Oklahoma readily provided the information I requested dating back to 1999. Why is is that one state institution would keep such records and another would not? Are you telling me that Oklahoma State doesn't even have a copy of its drug testing policy from just a few years ago?

If you maintain the position that those records no longer exist, you leave me no choice but to elevate this matter to Time Inc's legal department and ask that they pursue the matter through Oklahoma State's general counsel office. Also, I assure you that continued denial of this request will lead to further requests so as to gauge what other documents Oklahoma State has chosen not to preserve.


An internal email, sent to Rochell from Jason Lewis of OSU's athletic department, explains that "we update the policy yearly and destroy past policies. Really no reason to keep them."

OSU provided these emails to Deadspin under the terms of Oklahoma's sunshine law. This request was the only substantial email correspondence SI had with the school during the entire 10-month investigation, according to the university.


In any event, George Dohrmann and B.J. Schecter, SI's executive editor, arrived in Stillwater on Labor Day. Around 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 3, the two of them took a seat at a table in a conference room inside Whitehurst Hall, OSU's administration building. They were joined by Mike Holder, OSU's athletic director, along with the university's general counsel, employees of the school's compliance department, and three members of the OSU communications team.

The two sides met for approximately three hours that Tuesday—that conversation was off the record, according to an SI source—then re-convened on Wednesday afternoon for roughly three more hours. These meetings would be the first time school officials were informed specifically and directly about the depth of SI's investigation.


A report in The Oklahoman described the meetings OSU had with SI as "very professional." Our source agreed with that assessment, adding that the discussions were "cordial." At the same time, the source said, "We asked for a lot of information, most of which was not provided."

The OSU officials were told the SI series was going to run the gamut of college-scandal-reporting allegations: payments to players, academic fraud, drugs, sex, and players being discarded once their talents were no longer of any use to the school.


(We reached out to Dohrmann and Schecter to discuss what was said at the meeting. An SI spokesman returned the call and read to us the following statement: "We're not obligated to discuss the entire content of the story, and as it is, [Oklahoma State] leaked pretty much everything that we did share with them.")

It was at these meetings that the OSU officials learned Thayer Evans was among the SI reporters involved in the series. The OSU officials expressed their qualms, citing what our source alleged was Evans's "lack of objectivity towards our program," stretching back to Evans's days as a contributor for Sooners Illustrated, a magazine affiliated with the University of Oklahoma, OSU's biggest rival.


Dohrmann and Schecter dismissed those concerns, the source said, with Dohrmann making it clear he would be doing the writing—a fact Dohrmann himself has since repeated. The source—an Oklahoma State representative with plenty of bias of his/her own—also claimed that Dohrmann said something to suggest that he would be "writing around" any perceived bias. (SI's spokesman assured me the conversation had been recorded and said, "It's preposterous.")

Dohrmann and Schecter read to the OSU officials what our source described as "snippets" from the series. OSU tried to ask for more excerpts and broader context, but the source said Dohrmann and Schecter declined to do so—a reasonable move, since it would be ridiculous for SI to completely show its hand before publication.


Dohrmann and Schecter told OSU that SI had interviewed more than 60 former players and approximately a dozen former assistant coaches and staffers, according to the source. SI made it known that what was said in many of those interviews had "multiple sources" to corroborate it, and that the interviews had also been recorded. Our source said SI had even highlighted the "exceptional measures" that were taken to ensure the legality of what was being reported.

"They said, 'Our attorneys listened to every tape,'" the source said.

At the meetings, Oklahoma State agreed to make four individuals available for interviews: Rob Glass, the assistant athletic director for strength, speed, and conditioning; Joel Tudman, the football program's assistant strength and conditioning coach/counselor/chaplain; Terry Henley, the senior academic counselor for football; and Marilyn Middlebrook, who oversees the athletes' academic center. SI would wind up interviewing Glass, Tudman, and Henley, but not Middlebrook.


Our source said the Oklahoma State officials asked for names of any players, coaches, tutors, or professors mentioned in the report. Dohrmann and Schecter did not provide the names of any players making specific allegations, nor did they provide the names of any tutors or professors. Once the stories were published, the source added, it was apparent that SI had talked mostly to "disgruntled" players prior to the meetings—players who the source said posed "very little risk" of informing school officials they were being questioned by a reporter.

"There were inferences made that players would recant," the source said. "They did not want us contacting them."


On one hand, SI was being prudent: The magazine clearly did not want OSU interfering with its investigation. Also, the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prevents schools from releasing transcripts without the consent of a student over the age of 18. But SI's reluctance to name certain players, tutors, or professors also made it impossible for OSU to verify—or refute—some of the specific allegations being made.

This proved to be problematic once the series was published. Former safety Fath' Carter was quoted extensively in Part 2 of SI's series, which covered allegations of academic fraud. It turned out that several of Carter's claims didn't match what was in his transcripts, and SI was forced to amend Part 2 with a pair of corrections. But SI never bothered to corroborate any of Carter's claims against his actual academic record. (According to a source at the magazine, the reporters didn't ask the school for transcripts because they figured they'd be denied. Some transcripts were provided by the former players themselves.) "We had no idea Fath' Carter was part of the story," our source said.


Dohrmann and Schecter also presented the OSU officials with a figure indicating that from 2002 to 2010, 48 percent of football players left the program before exhausting their eligibility. OSU objected to that number and asked about SI's methodology. Dohrmann and Schecter promised to look into it. That 48 percent figure was subsequently leaked to the Oklahoman, perhaps justifying the magazine's discretion in dealing with the university.

SI claims that 48 percent of OSU players do not finish their eligibility. The university disputes that claim, saying Sports Illustrated is counting players whose careers ended by injury and even counts Vernon Grant, who was killed in a car crash.


After the meeting, according to our OSU source, someone at the school spoke with someone at SI, who said the researcher had simply gone through the rosters to see who wasn't around for four seasons. An intern from the magazine eventually called the school and went over the list of names with someone in OSU's compliance department. From a Sept. 6 email from SI's Chris Johnson to OSU's compliance guy, Kevin Fite:

I know you mentioned you would call me this morning and provide me with the list of injured players you recognized. Please get me that information when you can. As George mentioned, we'd like to publish a figure we're both comfortable with, and I think your progress would definitely help us reach that point.


This was the reporting process playing itself out prior to publication. By the time SI published the eligibility figure in Part 5 of its series, Vernon Grant had been removed from the list, and the statistic had been revised to 43.5 percent. "They came back and apologized and said they recalculated this number," the source said. "On their own, they admitted that the 48 percent is wrong."

The meeting represented the only significant contact between Sports Illustrated and the university in the course of the magazine's investigation. For various reasons—some of them tactical—SI's reporting was limited to former players' accounts. And their perspective, filtered through the analytical lenses of two proven scandal cops at the magazine, formed the basis of the series.


This approach had its benefits. "The Dirty Game" was the rare NCAA exposé told in part through the eyes of those players, rather than through the prism of possible NCAA violations. Part 5, "The Fallout," was a look not so much at the meatgrinder of college football as it was a profile of the meat after it's been shoved through it. And the otherwise incoherent "Drugs" section, for instance, departed from its Reefer Madness-style shaming of player marijuana use (and of coaches' tolerance for it) to provide a key detail:

Just before the final game of that season — a 36-10 victory over Arizona in the Alamo Bowl — safety Victor Johnson, who was not in counseling at the time, failed a drug test for marijuana. Johnson had opened the year as a starter but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game. He met with Gundy, who he says told him, "This is your second positive drug test so I don't think we can keep you here anymore."

Under the athletic department's policy Gundy was required to suspend Johnson only for 10% of the season. But he had also missed four games at the end of the 2009 season after hurting his knee, and he had been passed on the depth chart. "If I didn't get hurt, I probably could have pissed dirty again and they would have been like, Just don't do it," Johnson says. "But when I got hurt it was a whole different [story]. ... They were just going to find a way to get me off the team."

The contrast in how the school handled Bowling's and Johnson's involvement with drugs makes plain what could be called Oklahoma State's unofficial drug policy. Says Thomas Wright, "Once you stop producing, that's when [they] stop looking out for you."


The detail exposed the drug-monitoring program for what it is: a worker-management tool with which coaches exert control over their players. A thorough look at NCAA institutional rot could begin with that anecdote. SI's chapter ended there.

That's because the reportorial limitations had become narrative limitations. Billed as a "deeper, longitudinal" investigation into the corrupting influence of big-time sports on a public university, "The Dirty Game" was ultimately as shallow and cross-sectional as its reporting. SI couldn't use individual grievance to illuminate the university's failings—and, ultimately, show how those are rooted in the conceptual bankruptcy of amateurism—because it had hardly investigated the university. The magazine couldn't describe the pathologies, mechanisms, and structures of power because it had barely looked into them; the best view it got was from the conference room of Whitehurst Hall. At the exact point where the hard work started, SI stopped.