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The irony of this Sports Illustrated mess and why OSU never mattered

Sports Illustrated never cared that this was Oklahoma State, not even close.



Photo Attribution: USATSI

Photo Attribution: USATSI

I was thinking about this on Tuesday — this is largely all I’ve thought about for the last eight days — and feel like I finally arrived at the great irony in all of this…

The same folks Sports Illustrated claims OSU used and discarded — Kevin White, Artrell Woods, etc. — for its own gain as a football program, well, Sports Illustrated kind of did the same thing to them.

I heard over and over again from Thayer Evans and George Dohrmann “They just want their story told, they can’t believe you still care” and on and on and on.

But you know what happened at the end of all of this? Sports Illustrated’s big boys descended to interpret what Evans and Dohrmann had wrote and made it clear that Artrell Woods was no more than a pawn in SI’s game of pointing a finger at the NCAA and saying let’s talk about you.

Now, I understand that all players in a piece by a large publication are pawns to some extent, but this is different. This entire thing — I’ve finally realized — was never about Oklahoma State or anything that went on there.[1. UPDATE (because people were asking): I’m talking about from the perspective of the editors (Wertheim and Stone), I have no idea what the story was about for Evans and Dohrmann but Wertheim insinuated from the outset (read this) that this was about NCAA reform — I just felt like the writers tried to shoehorn in an OSU takedown…which was weird.] Oklahoma State was the bait and Sports Illustrated doesn’t dabble in bait.

Yesterday Jon Wertheim and Chris Stone wrote this:

But as the need for reform in college sports becomes increasingly urgent, we thought it was essential to ground the discussion in detail by taking a deeper, longitudinal look at a BCS program. How does it all go down?

How do the corrupt practices — which many fans accept with fatigued indifference — play out? What are the incentives not to cheat? And after they’re done running through the tunnel and onto the field on fall Saturdays, what toll has the system taken on the players?

You see that first sentence? “The need for reform in college sports.” That’s all this whole thing was ever about.

I asked Wertheim and Stone at the Deadspin chat today why they sacrificed OSU at the altar of the NCAA to build this piece instead of doing a story on 10 different programs. Here was Stone’s response:

The goal of the series was not to sacrifice OSU, but present what happens at OSU as the symptom of much greater systemic problem. The investigation was not about rules violations or sanctions or NCAA Bylaw It wasn’t about OSU players smoking pot; it was about the institutional sham of treatment programs that aren’t interested in treatment or counseling.

It wasn’t about OSU recruits getting laid. It was about raising the question of whether a hostess program is intended as a sorority in service to the football program. It wasn’t about players as the sole agents of corruption. It was about asking whether college football programs are set up to develop any other future skills than being a football player.

And Werthein:

The point wasn’t to take down OSU. The point was to really study and understand the business and the entire process, from recruitment to finish. I think most people work on the assumption that big-time college sports is a flawed enterprise. (To some it’s inconvenient; to others it’s indefensible.) There are plenty of opinions.

Revenue sport athletes should be paid! No way, they’re lucky to have a full ride and a fancy tutoring center! The NCAA defenders will tell you that compensate is a non-starters… Everyone from the New York Times op-ed page to the South Park creators have weighed in on this.

Our point: how do you have the informed discussion without really understanding the “factory” and the inefficiencies, how it also plays out and what some of the consequences are?

These are all valid points and questions I absolutely think need refining. But do you see now how SI used Artrell Woods and others for their benefit? Hell, I’m beginning to think SI used Thayer Evans and his thousands of sources in the Oklahoma area for their gain as well — he seems clueless enough to let this happen.

Berry Tramel mentioned this in our podcast today a bit but I’ll take it a step further — it’s almost like SI’s higher-ups (Stone, Wertheim, and others) said “we need to use a school for this big point we want to make, who can we do this on, who can we toss to the wolves?” and Evans was kind of the obvious choice. I think Dohrmann is just in his own “I write big-time pieces and win Pulitzers” world and doesn’t really care.

Still, I blame SI for framing the story the way they did. Stone addressed this as well in the Deadspin chat:

It’s fair to ask whether framing the story at the start would have influenced people’s perception of our intent. That, however, is arguing semantics/strategy. The message, in the end, is the same whether that you read John’s and my story last Tuesday or today. 

True, but the way we interpret the message is totally different. Maybe I’m just a moron but this whole time I thought SI was trying to catch OSU and reform the NCAA in one five-part series. They never even thought twice about OSU.[1. This became more and more clear as the facts about them not fact-checking stuff came out — I don’t even think they cared about fact-checking stuff because their larger point was already made: That is that college athletes get chewed up and spit out all over the place.]

Don’t tell me that you’re doing a piece on how good OSU got. You tried to do two things at the same time and it turned into a cluster. If you had just said from the outset “this is a microcosm of NCAA athletics — we don’t care that dudes did pot and got laid at OSU (as you’re telling me now) but we do care about college football as a whole” then I view the entire thing differently.

I feel like this whole thing was a bit frustrating and done in a very strange way.

But just think, 20 years from now Oklahoma State could be the institution that took down two of the more ridiculous entities in the 2013 sports landscape — the BCS (check), and the NCAA.

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