Sports reporting not just about scores

Every sports reporter knows the story is in the numbers ' passes completed, free-throw percentages, batting averages. But behind the statistics diligently supplied by athletic departments is a whole squad of other numbers. How much the new stadium costs. How much the coach makes. How many NCAA violations the team got last year.

The story of college athletics does not end with the final buzzer, and public records can help journalists give their readers the full report.

"A majority of the things I cover involve public records," said Brent Schrotenboer, a sports reporter at the San Diego Union-Tribune. "It's very important, I think, not just for myself and what I do, but just for people in general to know what's going on."

Rachel Bachman, a sports enterprise reporter at the Oregonian in Portland, said coverage needs to match the growth of athletic departments, which have developed into huge operations with some of universities'

highest-paid employees.

"I think it is incumbent on sports reporters to provide the same watchdog reporting that a news reporter would when that much money is involved," she said.

Bachman started as a sports reporter at the University of Michigan and has written plenty of game stories, but these days she has more in common with business and cops reporters than the reporters taking notes in the press box. Sometimes she gets documents to confirm what she has heard from speaking with sources, like a story several years ago about the declining grade-point average of black football players at Oregon State University. Once she heard about this data and an internal memo stating that academic support for athletes was insufficient, she was able to request the original documents. Other times, she sees what the records have to offer, like recent requests to universities about their expenditures.

"I'm starting with a kernel of knowledge ' that being that I know spending has increased quite a bit ' and then I request the documents to see what the specific news story is," she said.

Schrotenboer started using public records when he was a beat reporter trying to cover his team as thoroughly as possible, and said public records are now the lifeblood of what he does. Without routinely checking local court filings, Schrotenboer would not have discovered that the operator of the Gold Coast Classic college football match-up was getting taken to court for unpaid bills, despite receiving city funding to run the event. That 2005 story led to a city audit and misdemeanor charges for the operator.

Though most public institutions are required to release documents under their states' freedom of information laws, actually getting those documents is no trot to the end zone.

Schrotenboer said obtaining records can definitely be a fight with public agencies that see reporters as pests rather than watchdogs for taxpayer money.

"It can definitely be a tug-of-war a lot of times. It's not always easy," he said.

When Jan Murphy of the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., requested information about the salary of legendary Pennsylvania State University football coach Joe Paterno in 2002, the paper had to go to court to get the records. Pennsylvania's public universities are considered "state-related" and do not have to release records like public agencies.

"For me, it was always about the principle of openness more than exposing a salary that has been a closely guarded secret," Murphy said in an e-mail.

It took nearly five years and a Pennsylvania State Supreme Court decision to find out Paterno's official salary, but that lawsuit and others urged legislators to finally rewrite the state's freedom of information law. Now state-related universities are required to release, among other information, the salaries of their 25 highest-paid employees.

Typically, though, reporters can get documents without battling for years in a courtroom.

"The 'fight' is usually staying persistent with people who hope you'll go away or be satisfied with a document that is less than what you requested," Indianapolis Star reporter Mark Alesia said in an e-mail.

When Indianapolis played host to the men's Final Four in 2006, Alesia decided to write a story based on athletic departments' annual financial report forms required by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA is not subject to open records laws, but most public universities are ' so Alesia sent requests to every NCAA Division I public school. With less than three months to contact about 200 schools representing nearly every state, Alesia said it was more work than he ever imagined.

"It made me really appreciate the schools that handle records requests efficiently and professionally," he said.

The public, too, often resents reporters' investigations of beloved teams. After all, Schrotenboer said, you do not see people walking around wearing jerseys with the names of city council members on the back.

"They see it as, 'Why is some pipsqueak writer going after my favorite team?' The reality is we don't look at it any differently than city hall, but it definitely draws a more emotional reaction," he said. "People don't like to see their heroes or their teams being written about in a negative way."

Seattle Times reporter Ken Armstrong did years of investigative work on weighty topics ' wrongful convictions, improperly sealed court documents, judges' errors ' before he got involved in a 2008 series about the University of Washington football team that won the Rose Bowl in 2001. A trail of documents led to a portrait of a football program that purposely overlooked players' problems with the law to achieve success on the field. Though the award-winning series was praised nationally, it got mixed reactions in Seattle. The series was more about the entire community's values and priorities, Armstrong said, but passionate fans could only see it as an unfair attack on their team.

"They were saying that as a Seattle newspaper we had an obligation to be boosters for the school and for the football team, and obviously we don't view ourselves that way," Armstrong said.

Murphy was no stranger to fighting for the release of government records when she sought Paterno's salary information, but only that battle got her an invitation to appear on ESPN. It also got her an e-mail from a Penn State fan that she still keeps on her bulletin board:

"Get your ass back to the kitchen and off the football field. You stupid women reporters think you can step into a man's world just because you have a cute little ass ... Stay the hell out of Joe's way and do us all a favor, retire. ... Do something you might be good at, make some babies."

The fact that it is not always easy, these reporters said, means it is that much more important to write these stories and learn the skills.

"Anybody can maybe be a traditional sports writer by watching a game on TV and writing something about it online," Schrotenboer said. "It's a little different to bring together records and interpret them, and find out what's going on by connecting the dots between them all."

When Alesia wrote a series examining the University of California at Los Angeles athletic department's budget as a Los Angeles Daily News reporter in the '90s, he did not see many sports reporters doing that kind of work. Now it is more common, he said, especially among reporters covering college sports. Alesia has even compiled his knowledge in a public records guide for his colleagues.

"The days of just watching games and writing stories are long gone," he said.

Sports reporting is increasingly headed toward those numbers behind the games, Bachman said.

"There's less demand for the people who only want to cover games and only want to talk about statistics," she said, "and more demand for people who will sink their teeth into more difficult issues ' eventually that's going to lead to records."

reports, Spring 2009