Every sports reporter knows the story is in the numbers ‘ passescompleted, free-throw percentages, batting averages. But behind the statisticsdiligently supplied by athletic departments is a whole squad of other numbers.How much the new stadium costs. How much the coach makes. How many NCAAviolations the team got last year.
The story of college athletics does not end with the final buzzer, andpublic records can help journalists give their readers the full report.
“A majority of the things I cover involve public records,” saidBrent Schrotenboer, a sports reporter at the San Diego Union-Tribune.”It’s very important, I think, not just for myself and what I do,but just for people in general to know what’s going on.”
Rachel Bachman, a sports enterprise reporter at the Oregonian inPortland, said coverage needs to match the growth of athletic departments, whichhave developed into huge operations with some of universities’
“I think it is incumbent on sports reporters to provide the samewatchdog reporting that a news reporter would when that much money isinvolved,” she said.
Bachman started as a sports reporter at the University of Michigan and haswritten plenty of game stories, but these days she has more in common withbusiness and cops reporters than the reporters taking notes in the press box.Sometimes she gets documents to confirm what she has heard from speaking withsources, like a story several years ago about the declining grade-point averageof black football players at Oregon State University. Once she heard about thisdata and an internal memo stating that academic support for athletes wasinsufficient, she was able to request the original documents. Other times, shesees what the records have to offer, like recent requests to universities abouttheir expenditures.
“I’m starting with a kernel of knowledge ‘ that beingthat I know spending has increased quite a bit ‘ and then I request thedocuments to see what the specific news story is,” she said.
Schrotenboer started using public records when he was a beat reportertrying to cover his team as thoroughly as possible, and said public records arenow the lifeblood of what he does. Without routinely checking local courtfilings, Schrotenboer would not have discovered that the operator of the GoldCoast Classic college football match-up was getting taken to court for unpaidbills, despite receiving city funding to run the event. That 2005 story led to acity audit and misdemeanor charges for the operator.
Though most public institutions are required to release documents undertheir states’ freedom of information laws, actually getting thosedocuments is no trot to the end zone.
Schrotenboer said obtaining records can definitely be a fight with publicagencies that see reporters as pests rather than watchdogs for taxpayermoney.
“It can definitely be a tug-of-war a lot of times. It’s notalways easy,” he said.
When Jan Murphy of the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., requestedinformation about the salary of legendary Pennsylvania State University footballcoach Joe Paterno in 2002, the paper had to go to court to get the records.Pennsylvania’s public universities are considered”state-related” and do not have to release records like publicagencies.
“For me, it was always about the principle of openness more thanexposing a salary that has been a closely guarded secret,” Murphy said inan e-mail.
It took nearly five years and a Pennsylvania State Supreme Court decisionto find out Paterno’s official salary, but that lawsuit and others urgedlegislators to finally rewrite the state’s freedom of information law. Nowstate-related universities are required to release, among other information, thesalaries of their 25 highest-paid employees.
Typically, though, reporters can get documents without battling for yearsin a courtroom.
“The ‘fight’ is usually staying persistent with peoplewho hope you’ll go away or be satisfied with a document that is less thanwhat you requested,” Indianapolis Star reporter Mark Alesia said inan e-mail.
When Indianapolis played host to the men’s Final Four in 2006, Alesiadecided to write a story based on athletic departments’ annual financialreport forms required by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAAis not subject to open records laws, but most public universities are ‘ soAlesia sent requests to every NCAA Division I public school. With less thanthree months to contact about 200 schools representing nearly every state,Alesia said it was more work than he ever imagined.
“It made me really appreciate the schools that handle recordsrequests efficiently and professionally,” he said.
The public, too, often resents reporters’ investigations of belovedteams. After all, Schrotenboer said, you do not see people walking aroundwearing jerseys with the names of city council members on the back.
“They see it as, ‘Why is some pipsqueak writer going after myfavorite team?’ The reality is we don’t look at it any differentlythan city hall, but it definitely draws a more emotional reaction,” hesaid. “People don’t like to see their heroes or their teams beingwritten about in a negative way.”
Seattle Times reporter Ken Armstrong did years of investigative workon weighty topics ‘ wrongful convictions, improperly sealed courtdocuments, judges’ errors ‘ before he got involved in a 2008 seriesabout the University of Washington football team that won the Rose Bowl in 2001.A trail of documents led to a portrait of a football program that purposelyoverlooked players’ problems with the law to achieve success on the field.Though the award-winning series was praised nationally, it got mixed reactionsin Seattle. The series was more about the entire community’s values andpriorities, Armstrong said, but passionate fans could only see it as an unfairattack on their team.
“They were saying that as a Seattle newspaper we had an obligation tobe boosters for the school and for the football team, and obviously wedon’t view ourselves that way,” Armstrong said.
Murphy was no stranger to fighting for the release of government recordswhen she sought Paterno’s salary information, but only that battle got heran invitation to appear on ESPN. It also got her an e-mail from a Penn State fanthat she still keeps on her bulletin board:
“Get your ass back to the kitchen and off the football field. Youstupid women reporters think you can step into a man’s world just becauseyou have a cute little ass … Stay the hell out of Joe’s way and do usall a favor, retire. … Do something you might be good at, make somebabies.”
The fact that it is not always easy, these reporters said, means it is thatmuch more important to write these stories and learn the skills.
“Anybody can maybe be a traditional sports writer by watching a gameon TV and writing something about it online,” Schrotenboer said.”It’s a little different to bring together records and interpretthem, and find out what’s going on by connecting the dots between themall.”
When Alesia wrote a series examining the University of California at LosAngeles athletic department’s budget as a Los Angeles Daily Newsreporter in the ’90s, he did not see many sports reporters doing that kindof work. Now it is more common, he said, especially among reporters coveringcollege sports. Alesia has even compiled his knowledge in a public records guidefor his colleagues.
“The days of just watching games and writing stories are longgone,” he said.
Sports reporting is increasingly headed toward those numbers behind thegames, Bachman said.
“There’s less demand for the people who only want to covergames and only want to talk about statistics,” she said, “and moredemand for people who will sink their teeth into more difficult issues ‘eventually that’s going to lead to records.”