Last April was an important moment in the history of American journalism. After reading the explosive steroids-scandal book Game of Shadows, written by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters, baseball commissioner Bud Selig finally emerged from his cocoon of denial to announce an investigation into the performance-enhancing drugs that have cast a cloud over the sport ... and particularly over former Pittsburgh Pirate Barry Bonds, who is fewer than 40 home runs from catching all-time leader Hank Aaron.
As the scandal has gradually grown from a whisper to a public preoccupation, the media's role in keeping steroid abuse out of the spotlight for so many years has come under increased scrutiny. Sure, the players, Major League Baseball and the union all share a huge bulk of the culpability. But there were also reporters who got long hard looks (often literally, via clubhouse access) at the many manifestations of steroid use ... quick and massive muscle growth, pimple-strewn backs ... without being willing or able to blow the whistle.
In a finger-pointing column, media critic Jon Friedman argued that "the media should have been more aggressive in covering Bonds' alleged drug-taking over the past few years. ... His saga was ... literally ... right in front of their noses."
And in April, ESPN's Buster Olney, writing in The New York Times, offered a modified mea culpa, admitting that because of his failure to do a better job poking around on that story, "I had a role in baseball's institutional failure during what will be forever known as the Steroid Era."
As it turns out, the two Game of Shadows journalists ... Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams (who have already won a slew of honors for their coverage, including the prestigious George Polk Award) ... are not the kind of reporters found walking around post-game clubhouses armed with microphones and notebooks. Fainaru-Wada, a former sportswriter, was working on a campaign-finance project for the Chronicle's investigative unit when the BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative) drug story broke. Williams, a traditional courts-and-cops reporter, is a long-time investigative journalist.
The fact that it took two reporters outside of the sports department to help unearth what may be the darkest moment in baseball since the 1919 Black Sox scandal raises a critical issue. In this era when steroid use generates Congressional hearings, and ball clubs are immensely influential community institutions and powerful economic entities, why does so much sports reporting still consider itself ... to use a descriptive term ... the "toy department"?
In fact, a survey of sports sections in 16 U.S. newspapers released last year by the Project for Excellence in Journalism concluded that they are generally "a passive and reactive space ... with little room for enterprise reportage." The study found that planned events ... such as games ... made up nearly 90 percent of the stories examined, while 10 percent could be characterized as newsroom-initiated or enterprise coverage.
So where is the journalism in sports journalism? Where is the hardheaded, probing coverage of these mega-institutions that one sees in politics, business and academia? Where is the solid, substantive reporting that can actually shed light on the quasi-informed gossip and speculation that fills endless hours of chatter on radio and TV sports talk shows?
Not surprisingly, Fainaru-Wada is among those advocating for more serious sports coverage.
"No one's letting me run a newspaper," he admits. But more aggressive sports reporting "seems like a natural thing you would do. This is a big business and [it is] rife with stories to be done. ... If you look at a sports section every day, 99 percent of the reporting is positive. It's a complete diversionary thing to talk about how negative the media are about sports."
Sandy Padwe, a former Sports Illustrated senior editor and an ESPN consultant who teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, also believes that better reporting could have smoked out the steroids scandal earlier.
"There was all this stuff out there to be looked at, but there are few investigative units in sports," he says. "That's the big frustration. It won't be until sports departments function independently journalistically that you'll lift sports departments up to the level of everyone else."
The Wide World of Sports
These days, it's pretty obvious that sports presents subjects and conflicts that merit substantive media scrutiny.
"Clearly, we can find many issues in sports that can be called front-page and metro-related," ventures Bob Steele, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute media think tank. "There's a great deal of business and economic conditions. Sports are often about race and race relations. ... Sports may be as central in our society as politics and religion." (Last month, Poynter hosted a "Sports Journalism Summit" in conjunction with the Associated Press Sports Editors [APSE].)
In some cities ... like the northeastern megalopolises of Boston, New York and Philadelphia ... the press has long had a reputation of hosting an aggressive and relentless sports press corps that can be too intense for the player or coach who can't handle the pressure cooker. And that's certainly true for extensive on-the-field coverage and sharply opinionated column writing.
But there are also stories simmering in the back of the clubhouse, away from public view.
The furor last fall surrounding Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein's sudden (and temporary) departure from the team triggered an intensely competitive media war to try to make sense of that turn of events. And in that context, the 17 percent stake in the Sox owned by Globe parent The New York Times Co. proved to be an extremely contentious subject.
(There are a number of media companies and moguls, ranging from The New York Times Co. to the Tribune Co., and from Rupert Murdoch to Ted Turner, that have held ownership stakes in professional-sports franchises ... a reality that complicates coverage issues even more.)
But for all the attention paid to the Sox, there wasn't much reporting that foreshadowed the problems between Epstein and team CEO Larry Lucchino, which apparently triggered the rupture that seemed to catch everyone by surprise. Among the analysts interviewed for this story, there was broad agreement that such a front-office rift ... even if the parties want to hush it up ... is legitimate fodder for sports departments.
"You have to [cover it] because it affects the way [the general manager] does his job," says Frank Shorr, a former TV-sports veteran who teaches sports journalism at Boston University.
"That's an absolute story," says Padwe. "That's a business story. It's a baseball story. It's everything."
A more sensitive question is when and if an athlete's off-the-field issues become worthy news subjects. That, of course, raises the thorny issue of when sports journalism should cross that public-private demarcation zone.
Five years ago, the editor of the gay-and-lesbian magazine Out announced that he had had an affair with a well-known but unnamed East Coast-based player, triggering a frenzy of rumors and gossip about the man's identity. The editor raised the important issue of homophobia in sports, but sports journalism has been loath to go there.
And with hindsight, could more open coverage of Yankee great Mickey Mantle's proclivity for very hard partying have been justified by its connection to his injury-plagued career?
Poynter's Steele says that when it comes to sports coverage, the presumption of privacy should no longer be a given.
"If an athlete's [private life] is having an impact on that athlete's professional performance, that to me is a legitimate story," he says. "By choosing to be a performer in the athletic arena, you give up that zone of privacy."
Sports Writing Is Fun; News Breaking Is Hard
The biggest impediment to more-aggressive sports coverage may be the idea that, at a time when many media outlets are tightening belts and losing audience, sports certainly seems to sell.
A 2000 readership survey by Mediamark Research found that 43 percent of adults (including 58 percent of men) read the sports section of their daily paper, making it the most popular attraction behind the main news section.
When ESPN was founded in 1979, it was considered a bold experiment. Today it is a media conglomerate unto itself, with a web of TV networks ranging from ESPNEWS to ESPN Classic, a radio operation with about 300 full-time affiliates, a potent online presence, and a magazine that is pushing two million in circulation. (The network says that as many as 88 million people a month watch its signature news show, SportsCenter.)
In the minds of media executives, there may be an unspoken ... or even spoken ... fear of killing that golden goose with the kind of tough reporting and unforgiving scrutiny that could turn off fans.
Some experts acknowledge that the sports-addicted public may not have much appetite for digesting serious ... meaning unflattering ... news about its favorite teams and players.
John Nicholson teaches television sports reporting at Syracuse University, where such famous sportscasters as Sean McDonough, Marv Albert and Bob Costas were once enrolled. There is no investigative sports-reporting class at Syracuse. Says Nicholson, "The business of broadcasting is the business of making money. I don't know that many people that would watch" serious sports TV journalism.
Shorr voices a similar, if debatable, thesis: "The public wants one of two things. ... They want to see Barry Bonds hit home runs ... and they don't care whether he's taking steroids or not."
Jeffrey Marx won a 1986 Pulitzer Prize at the Lexington Herald-Leader after a grinding investigation that uncovered cash payoffs to University of Kentucky basketball players. Despite that achievement, Marx ... who was a business staffer brought in to work on the story with a Washington reporter ... describes the public's reaction to the expose as "overwhelmingly negative," with only "pockets of positivity." According to the paper's projects editor, citizen reaction included a bomb threat and shots fired at the pressroom.
In Buster Olney's April New York Times column, the ESPN reporter explains that a decade ago, he once asked a prominent player if he were using steroids. When Olney received the requisite denial, he wrote, "I didn't print a word about the exchange. I had no proof."
As in the case of Olney, sports journalists insist that a large obstacle to investigative reporting is the inherent difficulty of nailing down sources and confirmation.
"There are plenty of things we 'know,' but we haven't reached a standard [that allows us] to put it on the air," says Vince Doria, the former Globe sports editor who is now director of news at ESPN.
Doria recalls the internal conversations at the Globe in the late '80s, when the lurid details of Wade Boggs' relationship with mistress Margo Adams surfaced ... some of them in the pages of Penthouse magazine.
"What were we gonna write? 'Wade Boggs was seen in a bar with a woman'?" Doria asks. "Things happen under your nose as a reporter that don't meet the standard."
Glen Crevier, assistant managing editor for sports at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the president of APSE, notes that as the result of a tip, the Star Tribune broke the story last year that Minnesota Vikings running back Onterrio Smith had been caught with a "Whizzinator," a device used for beating urine tests.
But Crevier acknowledges that a lot of stories are difficult to get into print "because you have to respect your sources. Hopefully, our standards are rising on how we use anonymous sources."
One point on which there is widespread agreement is that it's both inefficient and unfair to ask beat reporters ... those assigned to cover the team and the games ... to risk access and relationships by suddenly turning into investigative types.
"Our beat guy ... has put up with so much crap" as a result of the BALCO story, says Fainaru-Wada. "There's no way those guys can deal with their jobs and at the same time investigate this in any real way. It's not the responsibility of the beat guys to get those stories."
One of the groundbreaking works of sports journalism actually came from a Major League pitcher named Jim Bouton. With his scandalous 1970 book, Ball Four, Bouton peeled away the gauzy myths that permeated Major League Baseball and exposed the players as founts of human foibles ... and in some case, as serious amphetamine users.
Bouton paid a price for trying to debunk the fantasies that can define the relationship between the athletes and the fans. There are a lot of reasons for the almost irrational appeal of sports: the sheer escapism; the refreshing clarity of a contest with a finite time limit that almost always ends with a winner and a loser; and, of course, the sometimes heroic exploits of the people who wear the uniforms we cheer for.
For his role in pulling back that curtain, Bouton was ostracized from the baseball fraternity and not invited to a New York Yankees old-timers game until 1998.
Today, Bouton believes that most sports scribes aren't built for hard-news digging because they share the same feelings as the rooters in the seats. "More sportswriters are in it because it's fun. They're fans," he says. "I don't know if they're cut out for it.
"Yes, it would be great if we had more investigative journalists in baseball," he adds. "But not if we had to take them off another beat. ... We have a basically uninformed public. People are ill informed by the media at all levels."
On the Sports Investigative Beat
Olney's admission that he couldn't report his steroid story in 1996 because his source wouldn't confess helps explain why sportswriters may not make good media sleuths. After all, Woodward and Bernstein didn't figure out Watergate by asking Richard Nixon if he were corrupt.
Getting to deeply embedded sports stories ... be they about front-office intrigue or steroid abuse ... often requires journalists trained and skilled in collecting information from numerous sources.
Fainaru-Wada and Williams were both news-side reporters who got commandeered into covering a story that happened to have huge implications for baseball. Marx, another news-side reporter who found himself in the midst of a major sports scoop, says that kind of staffing decision is pretty rare.
"Where in America is a newspaper that in this day and age would cut loose two of its most productive news guys to spend seven months working on a sports story?" asks Marx.
There are, however, other models for producing serious sports journalism. At the Boston Globe, traditionally known as a respected sports operation, Bob Hohler holds the slot as the department's enterprise and investigative reporter. Hohler recently won an APSE Award for an October 2005 exposé detailing how a number of local sports idols ... from Manny Ramirez to Tom Brady ... have either failed to deliver on promises to establish working charities or have proved to be uncharitable with their riches.
At the New York Daily News, Teri Thompson heads a three-person investigative team that is part of the sports operation.
"I think we should be in the paper as much as possible," says Thompson. "Oftentimes, we end up in the front of the paper [with] stadium issues, public funding and race issues."
Journalism ... sports reporting included ... is about wading "into the murky waters of what you're covering," she adds.
The Star Tribune's Crevier says he has created an enterprise-reporting position in his department. The paper, for example, spent four months covering the "financial machinations" of last year's sale of the Vikings.
Columbia's Padwe is a strong advocate of creating in-house investigative sports staff rather than looking to the broader newsroom for help.
"You don't want to assign news-department reporters," he says. "That just keeps the 'toy department' label on sports departments. You want it so that sports departments join the journalism world."
And even as Fainaru-Wada basks in widespread praise and attention for his reporting, he clearly feels the need to partly defend the sports-writing fraternity he once belonged to.
"I don't think there's any question that people looked the other way [on steroids]," he says. "I just think it was not an easy story to get to."
But the real lesson of this scandal that festered below the surface for far too long is that it's high time that sports journalism reached higher and tried harder.