I have waited to write about the whole Sports Illustrated-Oklahoma State-Thayer Evans thing because—frankly—I wanted to think about it. To really think about it. Too often these days, we’re asked to have a take ASAP. We need to respond immediately; to opine decisively; to declare something big and bold and shocking on the spot; in the spur of the moment.
Too often, however, this results in buffoonery.
Wait. Before I go there, a bit about Thayer Evans and reporting …
I don’t know Thayer Evans. We’ve never met, never spoken. In fact, before a couple of days ago I’m not sure I’d ever heard of the man. Is he a good reporter? A shady reporter? Does he love Oklahoma and hate Oklahoma State? Could he care less? I just don’t know—and, I’m quite certain, most other don’t know, either.
Here’s what I do know: Much of the criticism of his reporting methodology has been—on the surface—bunk. There’s this idea out there that, in order to properly and rightly report a story, one needs to interview a select group of people—generally the stars and head coach. If you don’t speak with them, the logic goes, you’re interviewing the wrong folk.
This is crap.
Without fail, stars and head coaches are almost always the worst interviews/sources. Why? Multiple reasons: A. They’re the ones who benefited most from the team/program. The head coach of Oklahoma State was paid big money to guide a high-exposure program. He had endorsement deals, contractual perks, etc … etc. Unless he was ultimately screwed, there is, literally, zero reason for him to speak. Stars can be grouped in the same category. You’re Brandon Weeden. You were the starting quarterback at Oklahoma State; that ultimately led you to the NFL. What, exactly, are you going to complain about? Who are you going to rat out?
Along those lines, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—wrong with interviewing, quoting and relying upon former players who have reasons to be unhappy with Oklahoma State. Why? Because everyone has a motivation. Just as Weeden is surely going to be thrilled by his time with the Cowboys, the frustrated transfer is going to be, well, frustrated. That does not mean his story doesn’t count; or that his information isn’t legitimate; or that he’s going to go out of his way to lie. Earlier this year I wrote about my time at Manhattanville College, and being booted as the student newspaper’s adviser. Does this therefore mean I’m going to slam everyone at the college? That I’m a disgruntled ex-employee who wants to burn the place down? Absolutely not.
The job of a reporter (and it ain’t easy) is figuring out whose information is correct, and whose is not. It’s about feeling comfortable with sources; about having other people vouch for a source’s words and/or character. Ultimately, it’s a judgement call. Not knowing Thayer Evans, I can’t speak for his judgement in this area. However, bashing him for speaking with Oklahoma State exiles is, well, naive. Find me a strong reporter who hasn’t tracked down a disgruntled ex-employee/player/whatever, and I’ll find you someone who’s not, actually, a strong reporter. Ultimately, the goal is to interview everyone—happy, unhappy, successful, failure—and piece together your final project.
The thing that puzzles me—that has always puzzled me—is the brainless craziness that is college football. Whether Thayer Evans’ reporting was flawed or perfect, clearly Oklahoma State did some very bad things. This is obvious, and a fact no one seems to be denying. And yet … why don’t school loyalists care? We’re talking about 19-, 20-, 21-, 22-year-old (so-called) student-athletes once again being treated as pieces of meat. They’re models for uniforms, dollar signs for endorsement deals, images to place on the cover of university literature … and, rarely, actually people.
I hear college football die-hards speak of their teams as “we”—we need to run the ball better; we need to come out strong against Oregon. This, of course, is ludicrous. These are often kids with flimsy academic credentials, being asked to carry a full course load while also practicing X hours per day, flying X miles across the country, missing X class and X class and X class. They would struggle to maintain a 2.0 average if they were solely enrolled in school (minus sports)—and yet, we pretend all is OK and groovy and grand. We dress them up in our school colors, roll out the balls and cheer away. Then, seven or eight years later, when we see X player living in his mother’s house, barely able to read, 44 credits shy of a college diploma, we shrug. Shit happens.
If you love Oklahoma State, shouldn’t you be furious? Not at the reporter or the magazine, but the school and the athletic department and the football program? Shouldn’t you be demanding a clean system; a desire for all-around excellence; a chance for your guys to wind up as successes in business, not just a meaningless game against Baylor? Shouldn’t you demand to hear the truth from your university? Aren’t there better questions to ask than, “Why does Thayer Evans hate us so much?”
I’m a Jason Whitlock fan. I truly am. I thought his commentary on the Don Imus-Rutgers stuff was outstanding. His gun stuff was equally top shelf. He’s written some wonderful stuff through the years; some columns that I’ve read more than once.
That said, this has not been a good week for the man.
Whitlock clearly sees himself as some sort of media sheriff; a guy charged with keeping the rest of us in line. He likes calling out individual writers, pointing out their flaws, explaining (in not these exact words) why they suck and he’s awesome.
In regard to Thayer Evans, Whitlock told an Oklahoma radio station, “Having worked with Thayer Evans at Fox Sports …”
OK, to start here. I’m pretty sure Whitlock did not work with Evans. Back in the day, when people shared offices, they worked together. I’m in this cubicle, you’re in that cubicle—we work together. Whitlock never shared an office with Evans, never spent great time (if any time) with Evans. Literally, they were located in two different cities. By Whitlock’s definition, I worked at Sports Illustrated with Gary Smith. Sure, he was in North Carolina and I was in New York. And sure, we literally were never in the same room at the same moment. But we worked together because our paychecks were signed by the same person. No.
Furthermore, Whitlock talks about Evans’ loyalties, calling him a “huge, enormous, gigantic Oklahoma homer.” However, Whitlock’s past desperation to work for Sports Illustrated was no great secret. His dream of being handed the back-page column. He, of course, was never offered a job by the magazine—and was, we can assume, angry about it. Does this not (by Whitlock-think) make him the wrong guy to go off on the magazine? Is he not as biased as Evans is presumed to be?
After slaying Evans, Whitlock noted, “I think the story is a cliché and bogus and suspect and just the wrong angle.” He also admitted, and I’ll place this in capital letters, that HE NEVER READ THE ARTICLE. Never. Not once. Not a word. DID. NOT. READ. IT. Even if you think the writer is a fraud, how in God’s name can you rip a piece you never read … then have other credible news sources give those words weight.
Again, I think Whitlock is a good writer, and I have no personal beef. But he pulled this same crap when I appeared on his podcast several years ago to promote Sweetness. Whitlock welcomed me on, wanted to talk Walter Payton … but admitted never having read the book, because he doesn’t read sports books.
My favorite piece of the Whitlock diatribe comes here: “There are a brand of sports writers who love doing these investigative pieces. They are not hard to do these days in terms of so-and-so got this money under the table. We’re into this area where unnamed sources can say anything, any of these he-said, she-said stories. I don’t respect the entire brand of investigative journalism that is being done here.”
Jason Whitlock has the absolute easiest job in sports media—and he knows it. He opines. That’s it. He doesn’t report. He doesn’t dig. He doesn’t make calls or seek out information. He takes the reporting done by others, sits in front of his laptop and comes up with a take. That’s it. He’s a good writer. Is he one of the, oh, 200 most-talented sportswriters in America? Probably not. (For the record, I’m by no means placing myself on that list either) But—and this is the big part—he’s loud. And obnoxious. He presents himself as a tough guy unafraid to take a tough stand, and people buy it. They absorb his self-righteous diatribes, because—on the surface—it seems to be driven by a desire to seek out truth and justice.
But, with men and women like Whitlock, truth and justice are often smokescreens for the parallel drugs plaguing the American media: Attention and fame. Whitlock seems all about attention and fame. Or, put differently, what sort of person states his own case for the Pulitzer Prize? What size ego must a man have to A. Think to himself, “I deserve the Pulitzer” and B. Write about it? I mean, between all the craziness of life and the highs and the lows and the ups and the downs, who even has time to ponder such a thing?
For all I know, the Oklahoma State report is filled with holes, and Sports Illustrated will have to apologize and Thayer Evans will soon be selling insurance door to door in Ada. I just don’t know.
As a journalist, however, I am deeply troubled by the blame-the-messenger mentality that has zoomed to the forefront.
There is more here than just a reporter with a vendetta, and or a reporter who can’t report, or a magazine story.
It’s time we all try and see it.