BONUS Podcast: How a political reporter is covering college athletics

This Podcast is running in tandem with the article, A political journalism veteran turns the spotlight on college athletics.

INTRO: Hey listeners, this is James Hoyt, and I’m a reporting intern for the Student Press Law Center.

This interview started out as a simple story about a New Mexico watchdog suing a university foundation, but it became much more than that.

Daniel Libit is a Chicago-based journalist with years of experience covering politics and presidential campaigns who has turned his focus to college athletics at the University of New Mexico, his home state’s flagship university.

Libit has a unique take on the sports beat and how he shines a spotlight on the Lobos, so we decided to make this into a special-edition podcast.

Please excuse the “ums” and “ahs” as this wasn’t originally intended to be published. Here’s Daniel Libit.

James Hoyt: Why are you so passionate about this?

Daniel Libit: I was born and raised in Albuquerque, this is the hometown team I followed and rooted for growing up as a kid. I have a philosophy on college athletics and college athletics journalism. I wrote a piece several years ago as a cover story for the CJR called “The Scandal Beat” where I dove into at least one aspect in the way that college athletics is being poorly covered, and this is, I’ve wanted to conduct this experiment on how I think college athletics should be covered. If you were actually covering it like the public institution that it is. And so my website is a test tube for, or a model for how one can go about doing this. And it doesn’t have an expiration date, I won’t be doing this for my entire life. It’s kind of taken on a life of its own in some respects, up to and including this lawsuit. I wanted to sort of find ways of using public records and sort of a philosophy of public accountability and just target a single college athletics department, and because the University of New Mexico was the one I’m most familiar with, even though I didn’t go there I went to the University of Wisconsin, I had the, I was dispositioned to focus on it but the sorts of things, and I encourage to take even the briefest of looks at the website because there’s a lot of stuff on there beyond this lawsuit, I think this is the way that, if I think this is what real college sports journalism looks like, as opposed to what we see which is either entertainment or reporting in the loosest sense of the word. So yeah, that’s, the passion project, I’m not passionate for UNM, I’m passionate about providing an example about how college sports ought to be covered if the people who covered it actually considered themselves to be journalists.

James: It’s unique to see this kind of scrutiny on the Lobos

Daniel: It’s completely, you wouldn’t find this anywhere as far as I can tell. No one’s doing this, even if you go, you’ll find newspapers that might be doing interesting work here and there, you’ll find the New York Times, the Washington Post have enterprise sports reporters or maybe even enterprise college sports reporters, but nobody’s covering the public institution side of an athletics department or even college athletics almost as a full time regularized beat, which is, again, I don’t understand, this the only way to do journalism. The other thing is not journalism. 99 percent of the coverage of college athletics is non-journalistic, and even when this is sort of the point I was making in the CJR piece I wrote a few years back, oftentimes when college sports reporters think they’re doing true journalism on the beat, they’re missing the whole plot. They’re covering the wrong thing, or they’re covering it through the wrong lens. And that was the gist of the piece I wrote for the Columbia Journalism review was looking at the way college scandals, college athletics scandals are often covered where, you know, I don’t need to, this is going off on a tangent I’ll shut up in a second, you have all these awards being won and all of this credit being given to this subgroup of college sports reporters who basically break news about certain programs violating NCAA rules, either with players getting paid money under the table or things of that nature. And some of these rules I think are bullshit, for lack of a better term. I don’t care, there’s no ethics behind them. These are corporate rules that serve a corporate entity. Some of these rules in terms of academic fraud I actually think there are ethics behind the rules, but a lot of these rules are just totally self-serving and yet the sports reporters get sucked up into these things as if these are real national laws that are being violated. You know, we wouldn’t cover that for any other entity. We wouldn’t treat their corporate rules as anything more than company rules. So that’s, in that way I think yeah I just feel like there’s a lot of confusion in college sports reporting because most of the people who are coming at it are coming at it from the perspective of fans and not from the perspective as journalists.

James: How could student journalists apply these methods?

Daniel: I think they should just fully adopt the spirit which with, their best positioned, right? Because one, they’re supposed to be representing the interest of students. So a lot of the things I write about are, the subjugation of athletes for the plutocracy of college sports, the exit interviews story, a lot of them have to deal with the finances. So take for example, this is less germane at a school like Kansas, but at New Mexico the university is in financial straits, the state is broke, and yet they’re trying to prop up college athletics and pay money they simply cannot afford and taxing the students more with student fees, and there’s very little accountability and a regula front on any of these issues. On the finances, the treatment of athletes, on the compensation of athletics administrative officials, I think that it’s the story. I recognize that we live in a world now there’s a lot of interest in what happens on the court, and in some ways you can’t stuff that genie back in the bottle but there's enough of that already. We don’t need anybody else, when Kansas plays basketball, how many game stories do we need that say the exact same thing? So particularly when it comes to the student newspaper, other than invariably there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to want to go to college and join the newspaper and cover Kansas basketball games, I get the allure, but there’s got to be, whether or not it’s another reporter, or somebody needs to cover the public entity side of this. The public good side of this, all the time. Look into the financial records, question the whole thing. Take nothing for granted, and don’t necessarily take it as inherently virtuous that there’s this college athletics component to a university. Cover it at the very least cover it with a totally open mind on that front and challenge the university to prove that. Run that gauntlet every day. If you come at it from that perspective, the stories will just multiply. The story ideas will just multiply in your head. There’s so much to write about, it’s very interesting, and it’s actually useful, unlike most of what's written about college sports. To the extent that college sports is entertaining, this is also entertaining, it’s entertaining and useful. You want to get into that mindset, you know, I can’t tell you, there’s a thousand stories I would write about the University of New MExico which is admittedly a trifling member of the NCAA, so if I can just, if all those ideas are for a school like that you can imagine what you could find at a school like Kansas or Ohio State or my alma mater Wisconsin or any number of larger institutions. Because there the issue is less about the unaffordability of college athletics and more about the real corporatism of college athletics. That’s what you’d find on the other side of the coin.

James: How have you adapted your political journalism experience to college sports?

Daniel: How are people getting compensated? What are the contracts they’ve established with their corporate partners? What is the true life of student athletes? What is the true behavior of college coaches? A very good place to start is, for reporters to stop referring to coaches as “Coach,” and giving them these signifiers. After that, sort of cleansing themselves of what they think should be the standards or, “well this is just the way it is” and just star covering these people as human beings in a jobs making certain kinds of money to do certain kinds of things, and where is this money coming from?

I was a three years staff writer at Politico, I was a contributing writer for National journal, I was a contributing writer at, I have a background in national politics, this is just a detour. So I’m covering this in some ways like you’d cover, it’s almost too much of a compliment, but how you would cover national politics or how you would cover a statehouse. That sort of the attitude I’m trying to bring to covering an athletics department.

James: What have you brought over from political reporting?

Daniel: The insatiable hunger for public records requests. And also, this is less from political reporting but this is just from not being a college reporter, I’ve benefited from not being inculcated in college sports reporting, is I don’t care about access. I’m not deceived into thinking that by constantly playing nice and by not writing anything controversial that this will somehow benefit my reporting. It never does. And that’s true in college sports and that’s true everywhere else. THere’s certainly a time and place to build sources, and everyone needs to make their own calculations about balancing future stories and the potential of getting future stories versus what you write in the interim, but there is, I think this is particularly the case in college sports reporting, there's a discomfort because of just the nature of the beat, so the people who have the most access and insight into a program are also the people who are traveling with the team on the road and going to press conferences and it’s uncomfortable, it’s uncomfortable to be the only person around who, or to have the sort of adverse or confrontational relationship with the beat that you’re covering. Especially since your readership, more often than not, is not going to compliment you or praise you for this work. The readership for college sports stories is fans, more or less. And so that might either lead to a rethinking about so maybe we have a college sports reporter, but maybe our higher education reporter works in conjunction OR we maybe don’t worry about that sort of access. Maybe that sort of access to get press passes to a game that anyone can see on TV anyway or to be permitted to come into a press conference where no interesting information is ever revealed, maybe we’re willing to give that up so we can actually focus on some more interesting and useful aspects of covering that stuff. That would be treating the beat of college sports as an actual journalistic beat and not merely as an entertainment beat.

James: How has UNM responded?

Daniel: Uncomfortably. I think what they recognize is the carrot and sticks that they are normally able to use to cow the few reporters they have who actually cover them don’t apply to somebody who’s not looking for press credentials or friendly interviews with the coach or coaches. From everything I’ve heard they don’t exactly know what to do with me. They’ve been polite. I treat this journalistically, if I have a story I run it by them, I give them every opportunity, I feel, every reasonable opportunity to respond, to lend their input, they’ve traditionally just given me responses by email. Notably, the head spokesperson for the athletic department has never actually taken a call of mine, so I call him quite frequently and leave messages. He will respond by email but he seems to avoid my calls like the plague. Because it’s New Mexico and because it’s not Kansas, there’s less of a wall, a wagon circling in the larger nation. There’s still people who are very passionate and I get the hate mail, but it wouldn’t be to the same extent that it would be perhaps if I was covering a Big 12 or a Big Ten program, not that I would have any problem with that. Again, this thing should exist everywhere. I’m certainly of the mind at some point to expand it beyond the dusty environment to New Mexico.

James: Bringing an outsider’s perspective?

Daniel: Yeah, bringing a journalistic perspective. I just want to emphasize the point that I just don’t think college sports journalism is journalistic most times. If you actually think about how to practice journalism on the beat, what I’m doing is the logical conclusion. This is what you’d cover. This is how you’d cover it. I’m not innovating here, I’m just actually doing what college sports journalists claim to do.

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