Vol. 48, No. 1 • November 2010 • .pdf version
• Bryan Burwell: Separating news is our job
• Joe Mitch: Honored to present new Tisdale Award
• John Akers: Media guide model of future
• Wendy Parker: NCAA opening door wider
• Kirk Wessler: SIDs in lockdown mode?
• Duke dominates preseason poll, watch lists

Bryan Burwell

Separating news from TMZ, Deadspin reports is our job

By BRYAN BURWELL / St. Louis Post-Dispatch
USBWA President

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Arriving at the unmitigated truth wasn't always this complicated. It used to be straight and to the point. Now it's obscured by layers and layers of nuance and nonsense. Now we get our "truths" in Internet chat rooms and from gossip-fueled websites. Now we're being asked to wade into the same tabloid playing field with the likes of Deadspin.com and TMZ.com, and everyone is trying to decide if they're willing to go with the new uncomfortable rules of the "gotcha" journalism game.

Over the course of the last few weeks – actually the field has been tilting steadily for a lot longer than that – the shift has become more apparent than ever. Whether witnessing another questionable public outing of an athlete behaving badly (see: Brett Favre vs. Deadspin) or more close to home with the expulsion of two Saint Louis University basketball players, we are constantly being asked to grapple with deciding where to draw the line when it comes to how (or if) we should report on the alleged sexual misconduct of the jocks we cover.

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Some want to say that in this new media reality, the game has changed and there should be no question about whether we should be in the business of tell-all news. We are in a world where youthful readers cling to instant gratification via Twitter's 140-character digest rather than the long-form newspaper, creating uncomfortable questions on whether our old business model (and the accompanying professional ethics) are rapidly becoming extinct. These folks want to tell us that we have to change with the times, we have to adapt and compete. They say we must do whatever it takes to get clicks on the Internet.

Well, I certainly hope not.

Life in the mainstream sports media is becoming more challenging every day as we fight to remain relevant in this brave new media world. But we can't compromise all the most important things that still separate us from those on the Internet's less credible edge. The tabloids, unedited bloggers and anonymous chat-room commentators have a low bar to hurdle, unencumbered by the mainstream's higher ethical journalistic standards.

We have to be able to hold tight to that distinction.

Before the NFL announced that it would investigate Favre's alleged indiscretions and whether or not he was guilty of anything bordering on sexual harassment in the NFL workplace, it wasn't news, even if what Deadspin was putting out there was titillating and incredibly embarrassing. But now we are in a very weird place, because to me, the only proof we have is those awkward voice mails where he revealed himself to be that sad old man who didn't know how much he was embarrassing himself by begging to a younger (and obviously uninterested) woman. Nothing illegal there. Stupid, yes. Illegal, nope?

And I will wait now for a show of hands from anyone out there who wants to be put in the position of verifying that those groin photos are valid. Anyone? Anyone?

I don't care about the stupid private indiscretions of high profile athletes if it has no impact on how they conduct their business on the field. If they are not breaking breaking any laws, their private life is theirs. But since the rules have changed and Deadspin and TMZ have gotten into the business of exposing salacious behavior of jocks, it might be a good idea for athletes to realize that they run the risk of having their dalliances outed by the tabloids.

But that's their business, not mine.

The tougher and legitimate stories that are out there are ones where the police become involved and serious accusations are filed. Stupid voicemails aren't my business. But when we have athletes involved in alleged sex scandals, like this latest mess involving Saint Louis University's basketball program, that's the mission of mainstream sports media to attempt to discover the truth, even if the truth is getting harder to discover.

On Oct. 13, two of the Billikens' top players, point guard and leading scorer Kwamain Mitchell and leading shot blocker and rebounder Willie Reed were dismissed from school in the aftermath of allegations that they were involved in an on-campus sexual assault. While St. Louis prosecutors said they would not bring criminal charges against the players after an incident last May, when a university coed said she was sexually assaulted by three SLU basketball players, the university's student conduct committee ruled that it had enough evidence to dismiss the players for the fall semester.

So here we are once again, stuck in the middle of another unclear and uncomfortable, but extremely complicated, sexually provocative, he-said, she-said mess in the world of sports. Is this another adventure in misplaced athletic entitlement like a Ben Roethlisberger, jocks-behaving-badly pub crawl? Or is it a lot closer to resembling the botched investigation and rush-to-judgment mess in the Duke lacrosse scandal, where no one involved was exactly a pure innocent, but assigning absolute guilt was a convoluted riddle?

With this story, all that we know for sure is that it begins (where else?) in a bar, with some over-served souls apparently making a series of light-headed decisions full of regrettable long-term consequences. Trying to get to the unmitigated truth in stories like this are more in line with what our jobs should be about. But getting to the bottom of a story like this is even more demanding than ever, particularly when private universities and the students themselves (in this case, both the alleged victim and the players, too) obstruct that process by hiding behind the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

"Saint Louis University men's basketball players Kwamain Mitchell and Willie Reed are currently not enrolled at the University. Federal law – the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) – does not allow the University to release any additional information without the consent of the students involved."

These carefully crafted words raised more questions than they answered. And it makes you wonder if it's all just a bit of blissfully naοve wishful thinking on the part of the university to believe that this would suffice to muffle all the Internet innuendo and campus gossip that has been filtering out since last spring.

"So what the heck just happened? That's a very good question," said Willie Reed Sr., father of SLU's former starting center.

"They're trying to blame my son for something he didn't do," said Reed, "and I'm not having it."

Willie Reed Sr. says his son and Mitchell were suspended last month by the university's student court for a full year because of allegations that they were involved in an unspecified violation of the student code of conduct.

The suspension happened as a result of a behind-closed-door hearing before the school's student court. For reasons no one can adequately explain, the hearing didn't happen last spring or even over the summer. Instead, it was conducted after Mitchell and Reed returned to school last month. According to Reed Sr., the alleged victim had an attorney and her parents present at the hearing, and the lawyer came armed with a thick book full of documents that supported her case.

His son was not given the same privileges. According to Reed Sr., statements that supported his son's innocence were not admitted into the proceeding. Neither player was allowed to have parents in the room and the only legal representation Reed had was a second-year law student who had less than 48 hours to prepare his defense.

"I am highly pissed," said Reed Sr. "We were not allowed to be there at all. Her parents were allowed to be there. Her parents were the ones who were pressing the school to kick them out for one year and that's what they (originally) did. Once I got involved in the process, (the university) tried to tell me it wasn't a legal matter. But it was a legal matter, because if it wasn't, why did she have an attorney involved and why was her attorney allowed in the room when the student conduct code said no attorney was supposed to be involved?

"They still have not responded to that."

But if the original hearing was smothered in unfair influence that leaned towards the accuser, whose father reportedly has a lot of clout with some deep-pockets university donors, you have to wonder if the appeals process tilted the influence the other way. The lengthy delay in the first hearing allowed the attorney for the accuser to compile a thick pile of evidence. But how much did the players benefit from the lengthy delay of a ruling on their appeal? Normally an appeal is supposed to take three or four days, according to university sources familiar with the process. But as word began to get out in the media – and perhaps among influential sports donors – this appeal dragged on for a month, and the result was a reduction of the suspension from one year to one semester.

"They tried to come up with a compromise that didn't satisfy anyone," said Reed. "I'm sure the young lady's parents aren't happy because they wanted them kicked out for a year. But I'm not happy, either, because I know my son didn't do what he was accused of. This thing was all screwed up."

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