Sports Illustrated's five-part expose on Oklahoma State football was unveiled to the public a week ago today and, as SI had surely predicted, the story has made a huge splash, rippling throughout the sports world. But that splash isn't the one SI had hoped for. It's the opposite of that.
We've learned a lot of things, about how we cover and talk about sports, about media, about fandom, about hair, in the wake of SI's story. Here are a few of those revelations.
1. People dislike the story, almost reflexively, and will take it apart anyway they can, even if those methods lack much intellectual consistency. There has been a strange dichotomy in the way people have discussed (and dismissed) the SI story. On one hand, the story has been picked apart journalistically, with Deadspin pointing out people SI didn't call and ESPN directly refuting some of the story's bigger claims. (Even Brandon Weeden, who honestly should have bigger fish to fry these days, got it on the act.) On the other hand, the very notion that the story is being done in the first place is mocked; we already know this goes on in college football leave it alone. You cannot say, "that story doesn't back up its outlandish claims" and then claim that the outlandish claims aren't that big of a deal anyway. Pick a lane.
2. Seriously: Nobody cares about this kind of college football "corruption" anymore. Whether or not investigative pieces like this miss the point of the inherent rot of college athletics has been an active debate for years now -- Tommy Craggs of Deadspin and Charles Robinson of Yahoo had a spirited discussion about this a couple of years ago -- but it's clear the public has spoken on this issue: Yawn. Sure, the story is likely a big pageview hit for SI (it's a hugely hyped cover story that everyone's talking about, for better or worse), but if there are people out there aghast at the wretched practice of giving small amounts of money under the table to college football players, or college students having sex and doing drugs, I haven't met them. (Maybe they're all in Pro Football Talk's comment section.) I can't help but wonder if this is the last sort of story we'll see like this for a while. They're a ton of work, they're expensive and the vast majority of fans think they're redundant and pointless anyway. The juice can't possibly be worth the squeeze.
3. The writer is always a part of the story. Always. Thayer Evans, the other SI reporter on the story, has become the centerpiece of the backlash, to the point that people were stabbing an effigy of him at Oklahoma State's tailgate yesterday. (That's a little frightening, to say the least.) Evans' supposed "homerism" -- the basis of which appears to be "he went to Oklahoma Wesleyan" and "once asked Brandon Weeden a question in a stupid manner" -- seems ridiculous on its face; whatever your thoughts on Sports Illustrated in this day and age, it's not exactly in the habit of assigning 10-month investigative stories to people so they can take down the teams they (might have) cheered against as a child. (My attempts to persuade Sports On Earth to let me put together a month-long series of stories about Why The Chicago Cubs Are Trying To Take Your Family Away From You And Thus Must Be Stopped are so far falling on deaf ears.) But that doesn't matter. Just the slightest hint that Evans might have something against Oklahoma State secured this story in the public consciousness: He's a homer.
4. People still listen to Jason Whitlock. This one always surprises me, but it's undeniably true. When Whitlock fired his broadside against Evans on Tuesday, it changed the tenor of the conversation from "aren't people tired of these investigative stories into college athletics?" to "wait, did Sports Illustrated screw this up?" almost immediately. Whitlock's broadside against Thayer wasn't unusual for him -- and said with his typical taking-out-an-ant-farm-with-a-semi-automatic precision that got him tsk-tsked by ESPN -- but it put Evans and Sports Illustrated into a defensive crouch it hasn't escaped yet. This doesn't mean Whitlock isn't right about the mindset behind the piece, ultimately. Just that his double-barreled assault on Evans changed the way people talked about the piece.
Also: Whitlock said on Twitter that if ESPN had produced the same report as SI did, he wouldn't have criticized it, out of company loyalty. This is an amazing admission, and, to judge from this incident, probably justifies whatever ESPN is paying him right there.
5. Evans still has plenty of questions to answer. Some of the omissions from the story do seem a bit baffling to the outside observer, though it always looks that way from the outside. The world before a big story like this is always different than the one after it; what seem like obvious questions now might not have seemed so obvious when the story was being put together. But the video of Evans responding to criticism of his work saying "any idiot can post something on the Internet" does him, and SI, no service.
7. The idea of a generalist, dispassionate readership doesn't exist, and probably never did. As if the fact that people are stabbing an effigy of a reporter who wrote a bad story about their team didn't secure this enough, it's probably time to stop pretending that stories like this exist in a vacuum and will be read accordingly. Everyone is biased. Oklahoma State fans ripping apart this story would lap it up if it were about Oklahoma. People who think college football needs wholesale changes believe this is both a symptom of the problems and a potential refutation of them. People who are shocked by the revelations of the story … OK, so I don't know who those people are. Point is: One of the major lessons we're learning about journalism in this day and age is that, no matter how high-quality the piece (a level of quality that far exceeds this one), you're just not going to change anybody's minds anymore. We are all entrenched. Something like this enters the public sphere, we all come out of our corners, take turns whacking at it, and then retreat to our corner. We always stay in our corner. Sports are about tribal loyalties, about huge, proud biases. Expecting people to ignore those because you put a football player in silhouette on your cover is unrealistic. This is why no one believes reporters when they say they cheer for no team. Not because they're lying, but because … what weirdo watches sports that way?
8. There was barely any sex. Seriously, where was the sex? I mean, this is college. There's more sex in a college newspaper story about parking restrictions.
9. Nothing is going to change. College football is too much of a moneymaker for corruption not to be baked into its inherent recipe; even if you start paying players, this is a feature, not a bug. Diehard college football fans shrug at stories like this, because they have long assumed this happens all the time and, unlike many journalists, have made their peace with it. (Fans are a lot less sanctimonious about college, and what goes on there, than journalists.) When you really break it down, no matter how pure the motives of the journalists may or may not be, these stories exist mostly for the media themselves. They get us talking, they get us pointing fingers, they get us all faux high-minded. Meanwhile, the games go on, unabated, with their own corruptions, with everyone but the people playing them making millions and millions, laughing at the journalists the whole way, about how little we really know, about how little we can really do.