Foul play

When student athletes engage in criminal conduct, student journalists have a right to report on the crimes and their aftermath. But school officials, concerned with negative publicity, can sometimes get in the way.

On Valentine's Day, University of Michigan basketball player Daniel Horton pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge for allegedly choking his girlfriend in December 2004.

When the Michigan Daily student newspaper reported his plea, subsequent sentencing and suspension from the team, athletic department officials contacted the newspaper with a message that surprised Editor in Chief Jason Presick.

"They were very complimentary of our coverage because the Detroit Free Press had published the girlfriend's name and we didn't," he said. "They were expressing to us how happy they were."

Presick said the overture was unusual because the athletic department usually remains tight-lipped about issues involving athletes that occur off the court.

"The athletic department is pretty closed in general," he said. "Whenever we want a comment it's pretty difficult to [get]."

In the microcosmic societies of college and university campuses, where student athletes attract attention like Paris Hilton at a fashion show, athletic departments--particularly the officials managing the men's basketball and football teams--wield tremendous power. In general, these programs both produce and require more of a school's revenue than other sports, draw the largest, most raucous crowds, and lose the most players to professional leagues before they graduate.

Presick, like student journalists at other schools where star players have run afoul of the law, describes an unofficial, no-access policy enforced by athletic department officials and campus police departments.

"With football sometimes they'll have press conferences and four athletes will come," he said. "Basketball is a little better because there's a few games a week so you're in situations where you'll run into them more often. With football, there's one game a week and the athletic department keeps them away from the press. It's not that they choose not to talk to us, [but] the athletic department keeps them away. That's my understanding."

The University of Wisconsin at Madison's policy governing athlete interviews is common at larger universities. Justin Doherty, director of athletic communications, said the athletic department instructs new recruits to refer reporters asking for interviews to the department, which will schedule an interview or reject the news outlet's request.

"We know who are legitimate media," he said. "It's also our job to help our athletes in an educational sense in learning how to conduct an interview, how to conduct themselves when speaking to somebody. We don't tell them, 'Say this' or 'Say that.' A lot of them haven't had experience with [interviews] and it can be an intimidating thing for an 18 or 19-year-old to be surrounded by 30 reporters after a game or at a press conference."

Presick said the Michigan athletic department's silence has resulted in lopsided coverage of Horton's criminal proceedings. Horton's lawyer, who loudly protested the school's decision to suspend him for the season's last handful of games, was the newspaper's chief source for many stories.

"[Attorney Gerald Evelyn] seemed to enjoy talking to the press," Presick said. "Sometimes we could fill a whole story with quotes from him, but the athletic department wouldn't comment."

Adria Gonzalez, director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, Fla., said athletic departments do a disservice to students when they shut out the student press.

"[Student newspapers] are talking about their peers," when they report on athletes, she said. "The press is just trying to provide information to people who care about it."

Gonzalez compared athletic departments to public agencies when describing the importance of talking to journalists.

"We see [public agencies rebuffing the press] a lot at the First Amendment Foundation because we deal with open government and public records and a lot of times public agencies don't appreciate reporters asking a lot of questions," she said. "Instead of being defensive about it, they should appreciate that their citizens are being involved and caring. It's the same for students in their school--what's going on with their programs, money and peers."

At Wisconsin, basketball player Boo Wade was sentenced in March to 18 months of probation and mandatory domestic violence counseling after allegedly choking an ex-girlfriend in February 2004. The court has escalated his punishment because he failed to complete an anger management program for first-time offenders offered by the state.

Cristina Daglas, editor in chief of the Badger Herald student newspaper, cites the campus police department's reticence as the chief obstacle to the newspaper's coverage of Wade's arrest, trial and sentencing.

"There's been no difficulty with documents, just difficulty with people," she said. "It's very difficult to get information out of them unless you talk to the one officer who is dealing with the one complaint. They typically say, 'Whatever you have is what we have' and they won't give any additional information."

Daglas said the school's athletic department is just as silent when players face charges.

"Whenever it comes to an athlete being in trouble they are going to be very tight-lipped," she said. "They'll make one comment just reiterating what the coach has already said. They'll be good for stories when it comes to just covering a game but when it comes to covering anything mildly scandalous, it will be much more difficult."

She said when athletic officials do speak up, the sound bites are rehearsed.

"They'll release statements," she said. "They're really good at giving what you need for your briefs but you won't get any more in depth than any other daily [newspaper] in the city of Madison will get."

Doherty said when a student athlete faces criminal charges, the athletic department generally ceases to honor interview requests during the athlete's suspension period and leaves players to manage their own media contacts.

"We had a guy who was suspended from football practice for eight spring practices," Doherty said. "Once he was back practicing, he was available to the media again. When they’re competing and active participants in the program [the athletic department handles interview requests]. When they're not, it’s up to them."

In one of the most dramatic examples of a student athlete's recent arrest, Pierre Pierce, leading scorer for the University of Iowa's basketball team, allegedly broke into an ex-girlfriend's Des Moines townhouse in January, forced her to the floor, tore off her clothing, choked her and destroyed or stole $1,300 worth of furniture and electronics. The university permanently dismissed him from the basketball team. Pierce faces a maximum of 56 years in prison on counts of first degree burglary, assault with intent to commit sexual assault, criminal mischief and false imprisonment.

The staff of the Daily Iowan has encountered no trouble obtaining court documents, Editor in Chief Tony Robinson said. However, the athletic department has been generally cantankerous, he said.

"We have had problems with our athletics department in general," he said. "I think they think we should be their mouthpiece because we're the student newspaper, but we have no ties to them because we're independent and totally funded by our ads. We'll write a column about one of the coaches and say that he's not doing a good job, and the team sucks, and then they'll get mad at us and say, 'You guys are hurting recruitment.' And we say, 'Well, we're not your mouthpiece.'"

Student reporters said that athlete arrests, which many athletic departments refuse to comment on, are matters of public record. Gonzalez said the solution to the tense relationships between the newspapers and departments is more athletic department access in such cases.

"I think openness would alleviate some of the animosity that is felt," she said. "I understand [athletic departments] perhaps wanting to protect their students' privacy, but if they're trying to hide something else, that would make the student body a little more suspicious It would be helpful for them to be open with the press without hurting anyone's privacy."

In the most extreme example of obstacles faced by college journalists, the staff of the Daily O'Collegian at Oklahoma State University is wrangling over a football player's sealed court documents in a case headed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court this summer.

In 2003, a female OSU student implicated running back Vernand Morency in her rape, and a university police investigator filed an affidavit. Although the district attorney did not file charges due to lack of evidence, the athletic department suspended Morency from the football team. He sued the school to maintain his athletic eligibility but a trial court dismissed the case in September 2004 and sealed the court documents--a measure approved by the university and Morency's counsel. Morency left school to train for the NFL draft and, with the help of attorney Bob Nelon, O'Collegian staff reporter Sean Hill filed a motion to unseal the documents. The court agreed and ordered the documents unsealed in January. Morency's counsel appealed.

After a string of hearings and an unsuccessful February settlement conference between Nelon and Morency's attorney, Stephen Jones, the case is on its way to the state supreme court. If both parties exhaust their allotted preparation time, proceedings will begin in June. A resolution could take several more months.

Nelon said the court documents contain the names and information about other OSU students that the university wants to stay sealed. In preparation for the original 2003 lawsuit against OSU, Morency's counsel subpoenaed records from the school and included in subsequent briefs information about other students that appears in the files. The school is worried about lawsuits should this information become public record, Nelon said.

"We felt Morency waived all rights he had to privacy of student records by choosing to [reveal information about other students] in a court file," Nelon said.

Nelon also said he approves of removing the names and information of other OSU students should the court rule to unseal the documents. Jones disagreed.

"It's a simple matter," he said. "The reason you seal and make matters confidential is to protect the integrity of the process. If you're going to unseal some of [the documents], you should unseal all of them. Allegedly, the press is interested in this as the public's right to know. If the public has a right to know, they have a right to know 100 percent."

As campus celebrities, star athletes walk a fine line as arguable public figures. While fans thrill to read of their exploits on the athletic field, many are offended when student newspapers report their run-ins with the law, despite the arrest records' status as public documents.

Hill discovered the rape allegations directed at Morency while reporting on another of the football player's legal fiascoes.

"I'd gone to the Payne County Courthouse to ask about another case," Hill said. "Morency had been charged with accepting stolen property. I was going to ask about information in that case. [The clerk] said the case had been taken out of the system and expunged from his record, but they had this search warrant under his name so they printed it off and gave it to me."

The Daily O'Collegian ran Hill's story on the front page on Oct. 4, 2004, and the ensuing outcry from student fans was immediate and strident. Hill said angry students flooded the newsroom with complaints for two weeks.

"A lot of the e-mails would say 'I don't know [Morency] personally but I hear he's a great person,' or 'I don't know him personally but he's a great football player,'" Hill said. "There were a lot of 'Why would you do this to a student?' and 'Why would you try to hurt someone?' [Students] really surrounded him and the football team."

One OSU senior wrote: "I was shocked and outraged after picking up the paper on Monday, Oct. 4. How could anyone write such trash about Vernand Morency? He is having an outstanding season and someone decided to go digging into his past. Everyone has things in their past that they do not want brought up. I am very disappointed that his own school paper would throw this in his face!"

In response to the fan outrage over Hill's story, the O'Collegian ran an editorial supporting the coverage. Because arrest records are public documents, the editorial said, anyone could go to the courthouse and peruse Morency's file.

Now that the case has reached a standstill, Hill and the O'Collegian staff are preparing the next crop of reporters to follow the case.

"It would be of interest to the student body for the same reasons it's of interest to the students who work at the newspaper--the fact that it's a sealed court case and we don't know why," Hill said. "We don't know what's in there."

reports, Spring 2005