Symposium Highlights Investigative Journalism

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Symposium Highlights Investigative Journalism
Nov 13, 2019

By Ryan Romano

In 2017, Penny Hardaway, a former NBA star and University of Memphis alumnus, gave thousands of dollars to the family of basketball recruit James Wiseman to help him move closer to the school. The following year, Hardaway was hired to coach Memphis’ basketball team, and Wiseman committed to play for him.

Was this all a coincidence? David Aldridge, a longtime basketball reporter and current editor for The Athletic D.C., isn’t so sure. Speaking at the 14th annual Povich Symposium at the University of Maryland on Tuesday, he highlighted the case as an example of why investigative sports reporting is so important.

“All the various things that are done in … all sports that give anyone any type of competitive advantage, they are going to seek it,” Aldridge said at the Riggs Alumni Center. “It is our job to try and find out how they seek it and try to point out when they seek it.”

Aldridge was one of seven current and former journalists who spoke at the symposium, hosted by the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism. Drawing from different backgrounds, the panelists mused on the role of investigative reporting in sports, now and in the future.

2019 Symposium Panel: (left to right) Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, David Aldridge, Joe Drape, Mark Fainaru-Wada, Marisa Kwiatkowski, Bob Ley, Sacha Pfeiffer (Photo Credit: Lisa Helfert)

The panel’s moderator, Washington Post managing editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, began by arguing that corruption and other problems in sports have “been around forever.” He recounted the Greek legend of Pelops, who beat King Oenomaus in a chariot race by conspiring with the king’s charioteer, then used his winnings to start the Olympic games.

Of course, the sports landscape in 2019 is far different from ancient Greece, as Garcia-Ruiz readily admitted. In addition to the many sports leagues and fans that now exist, there’s also a multi-billion dollar “sports entertainment industry,” in the words of longtime ESPN reporter Bob Ley.

“Sports has become a cultural force, it’s become a commercial force, it’s become a political force,” Ley said. “And with that power and that money at stake, things happen.”

Several of the panelists had themselves played a role in unearthing major sports scandals. Current USA Today reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski helped document the abuse of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar for the Indianapolis Star; ESPN reporter Mark Fainaru-Wada increased pressure on the NFL with an explosive book on its treatment of concussions and CTE; and New York Times reporter Joe Drape has exposed widespread corruption in horse racing.

Kwiatkowski stressed the need to be open with sources. When she interviewed survivors of Nassar’s abuse — asking “intensely personal questions” about exactly what he had done to them — she would be careful to avoid causing them any more trauma.

“We made a point to … over-communicate at the front end, why we were going to be asking those questions, and that it wasn’t because we didn’t believe them,” she said.

Fainaru-Wada was similarly transparent with the NFL, meeting with league executives early on to explain what his investigation was about. He also educated himself extensively on head trauma — not just to make sure his reporting was accurate, but also to make it easier to build relationships with sources.

“The more they trust that you actually care about what they’re doing, and have spent the time to really understand what they’re doing … the more likely they are to talk to you,” he said.

Different journalistic mediums have their pluses and minuses. NPR reporter Sacha Pfeiffer recalled how she used the “full potential” of radio while covering the murder trial of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez for The Boston Globe: After acquiring recordings of his jail phone calls through public information requests, she wove the audio into her broadcast pieces. She also stressed that you don’t have to have the word “investigative” in your job title to be an investigative reporter.

“Any beat can become an investigative beat, including sports,” said Pfeiffer, who also reported on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church during her time at The Globe. “When you think about the way sports overlaps with health, with education, with culture, with money, with business … the potential is enormous.”

Ley praised the visuals of a scene from the 2017 documentary Icarus, in which journalist Bryan Fogel confronts the World Anti-Doping Agency with hard evidence of a massive state-sponsored doping scheme in Russia.

“You can watch, in real time … the looks on the faces of these people who thought they had their arm around this problem,” Ley said. “It was anguish, it was anger, it was disbelief — everyone [had] a different reaction.”

Regardless of the medium, there are limits to the power of journalism. If Memphis fans choose to believe that Hardaway helped Wiseman move “out of the goodness of his heart,” they can do that, Aldridge said.

“It’s not up to the [media] to tell you what’s happening,” he said. “It’s up to you to decide whether or not that’s worth you investing more of your time in it.”

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