A political journalism veteran turns the spotlight on college athletics

Daniel Libit is a political journalism veteran based in Chicago with no experience in traditional sports reporting.

That’s not stopping him from shining a spotlight on the University of New Mexico athletics department through NMFishbowl.com, a “passion project” where Libit plans to bring accountability journalism to the world of collegiate athletics.

“I wanted to conduct this experiment on how I think college athletics should be covered if you were actually covering it like the public institution that it is,” Libit said. “I wanted to sort of find ways of using public records and sort of a philosophy of public accountability and target a single college athletics department.”

Utilizing records requests

Libit is suing the UNM Foundation, UNM’s nonprofit conduit for donated funds. The Foundation maintains it is a private, nonprofit entity and thus not subject to New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). Libit contends that since the UNM Foundation exists primarily to serve a public institution and thus should be held to the same level of transparency as the institution it serves.

Libit said he is seeking emails related to a deal struck between the Foundation and local business, WisePies. The deal resulted in a ten-year, $5 million gift to the Foundation and the renaming of New Mexico’s famed basketball arena, “The Pit,” to “WisePies Arena aka The Pit.”

The arena’s new namesake is a regional pizza franchise with locations in New Mexico and Arizona.

There have been persistent questions about the nature of the deal and the university’s confidence that WisePies will follow through, which Libit has documented in his “Money Pit” series.

“The university foundation can’t get away with what I’ve described as a public records avoidance scheme, that is to say finding some mere technicality in different domains where they can claim certain acts of their business, the public business, is really the Foundation’s business and therefore can’t be seen by the public,” Libit said.

Attorney Randy S. Bartell, who is representing the UNM Foundation in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

A “test tube”

UNM’s athletics department might seem like an odd choice for an experiment like this. According to USA TODAY, the Lobos ranked 67th among D-1 athletic programs for revenue from 2014-2015. And, not being in one of the Power Five conferences, it rarely enters the national college sports conversation unless the men’s basketball team makes a run in March (with some assistance from The Pit, consistently one of the most effective home court advantages in the sport).

Libit, a New Mexico native and University of Wisconsin graduate, said having no intention of writing gamers or features on UNM athletics has had an interesting effect on how the department reacts to the scrutiny of NM Fishbowl, since the normal rules of access journalism don’t apply.

“I think what they recognize is the carrot and sticks they are normally able to use to cow the few reporters they have who actually cover them don’t apply to somebody who’s not looking for press credentials or friendly interviews with the coaches…they don’t exactly know what to do with me,” he said.

In one story, Libit submitted IPRA requests to UNM asking for records of exit interviews conducted with student athletes who are leaving the program. The piece revealed much of what goes on in the department, including allegations of harassment of female athletes and NCAA and academic violations.

Libit, a survivor of the 2016 presidential campaign and veteran of publications like POLITICO, MSNBC and the National Journal, said student journalists should try incorporating elements of political journalism into the sports beat.

“So, I’m covering this in some ways like you’d cover national politics or how you would cover a statehouse, that’s sort of the attitude I’m trying to bring in covering an athletics department … there is a discomfort because of just the nature of the beat, the people who have the most access and insight in the program are also the people who are traveling with the team on the road.”

BONUS: Listen to the extended interview with Daniel Libit on our bonus Podcast.