Mistakes happen in journalism. Especially when news is breaking and the deadlines are tight, mistakes are going to happen. And you get used to attacks on even your airtight work when you're a journalist, often because of people who don't want to acknowledge that what you wrote is true.
The second is the reason that I held off on criticisms of Sports Illustrated's sprawling epic about money, drugs and (if we ever see it) sex at Oklahoma State. The first is an excuse for what happens with developing news stories, but not when you're talking about investigative reports with no time sensitivity. I appear to have been wrong to ignore the doubts that were being raised about SI's work, and they cannot hide now behind the argument that small inaccuracies sometimes happen in journalism.
People have said it before, but the main difference between SI's takedown of Oklahoma State and Yahoo! Sports' reporting on potential violations by five SEC players is the lack of documentary evidence in the former. The Sports Illustrated story relies almost exclusively on the testimony of its sources. Which means that if one of its sources appears to be lying, the reliability of the entire story could be undermined. And one of its sources appears to be lying.
Among the claims by [Fath'] Carter that are not supported by university documents were that he graduated from the school and attended classes in 2004 with running back Tatum Bell in which the professor gave them failing grades because their eligibility had expired.
Another discrepancy was from running back Dexter Pratt, who told SI that in his first semester, in 2009, every course he took was online. According to university records, Pratt took three online courses and two actual classes.
These are not small issues. The allegations about Bell and Carter's status and the Pratt story about online courses were two of the more eyebrow-raising charges in the SI story about academics. (Though online education is far different now than the correspondence schools Sally Struthers used to hawk in TV commercials, but that's a subject for another day.)
And it raises even more serious questions about SI writer George Dohrmann's statements concerning the credibility of some of Carter's more spectacular allegations.
Fath’ is a somebody who played four years at Oklahoma State, has two degrees from Oklahoma State, spoke on the record, recorded. I have no reason to believe he lied about that.
But ESPN's story is really just the heftiest in a long line of questions that the SI has faced over the last week. And a review of some of the stories done by the Tulsa World, in particular, and the Daily Oklahoman have raised serious concerns that almost have to be considered again in light of the ESPN report.
For example, one of the sources for SI's money story says one of his quotes was taken completely out of context. And while "out of context" is often code for "I said something I didn't want to say," Aso Pogi provides details on what he claims to have said that differ wildly from how the comments were portrayed in SI.
For example, the quote I said that, "Wow, it’s a big deal, because I was the starting quarterback," that was in reference to, as he was quoting off all of the allegations, I was repeating it back to him. So he would make allegations about OSU about football players and I’m sitting there just kind of like, "Wow, this is crazy. You mean this was going on?" So I’m just basically repeating what he’s saying, and then I said, "Man, that would have been a big deal, because I was the starting quarterback."
How did that quote appear in the SI story?
Quarterback Aso Pogi (1999 to 2002) says he and another player lived at Talley's ranch one summer rent-free. In retrospect Pogi says, "It's a big deal. I was the starting quarterback." (Talley says that Pogi lived at his ranch and had to work to cover his rent; Pogi denies that he did any work.)
Oh, and that last part? Not so much.
What wasn’t asked of me was ‘Aso, John Talley claims that you worked it off.’ I want to be really clear about this: When I thought about that time, and, again, all of this is coming at me at one time, like being bombarded with these questions all of a sudden. I’m just being honest. Saul Talley, who was John’s son, and George Horton were my best friends. These are the people that were my best friends and I stayed there for the summer. And me staying there, I lived rent-free, but I worked it off. I cut grass, I cleaned the pool and (cleaned up) horse poop. I did it all, man.
Pogi's comments could be more easily seen as backtracking or attempting to defuse embarrassing comments when there was little reason (beyond some fans' dislike of the bylined journalists) to doubt the SI story. But now that there are documented factual errors elsewhere in the report, they are harder to dismiss.
Other parts of Pogi's comments about the interview are troubling. If Thayer Evans didn't announce that he was recording the conversation, that wouldn't necessarily be a huge breach of journalist integrity given that he was in a state where that's allowed, but it still seems to be less than a shining example of how things should go when talking to someone who doesn't interact with the media regularly. I generally announce using a recorder, especially when I'm doing a sit-down interview with someone, even if it's not for a massive story accusing a major football program of breaking basically every NCAA rule that exists.
(Not all of the complaints represent a misstep on the part of SI. I sympathize with Seymore Shaw, but journalists are taught and held to the standard that no one who is aware they are a reporter is talking to them in an official capacity off the record unless the agreement is made beforehand, and that a source cannot later say that something is off the record.)
Much of this can be cleared up by Sports Illustrated and its writers. They claim to have recorded conversations like Pogi's. They should release the tapes. They should be forthcoming about the details of the statements made by players like Fath' Carter, and whether they did the due diligence necessary to check out those stories, or why they didn't take those steps if they did not. We are being asked to trust the writers and their sources; after the questions that have been raised, we need to know why.
Sports Illustrated owes that explanation to their readers. They owe it to Oklahoma State and its fans. But, most of all, they owe it to people like Vernon Grant Sr. -- a man who has already buried his son, woke up one day to hear allegations that his son was involved in wrongdoing, and now has to wonder whether any of it was even true.
This was once a story about Oklahoma State's alleged improprieties. It has now also become a story about Sports Illustrated's alleged improprieties. Oklahoma State has already said it will conduct an investigation, and it's safe to assume that the public will soon enough know the outcome of that investigation. Sports Illustrated should do the same.