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September 22, 2011 6:35 PM The Scandal Distraction

By Daniel Luzer

With the start of fall classes comes the beginning of the football season. Perhaps because of this, there’s been a number of stories lately about the problems with college sports. ESPN covers the reform efforts of the NCAA. Taylor Branch over at The Atlantic, meanwhile, writes that America might be able to fix college sports by just paying the athletes

But there may be something wrong with how journalists cover sports, particularly sports scandals. That’s what Daniel Libit argues. In the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review he writes:

Over the last three decades, investigative sports reporters have excavated dozens of episodes of rule-breaking in football and men’s basketball programs, from Southern Methodist University’s “Ponygate” affair in the 1980s to the pay-for-play shenanigans at the University of Washington in the 1990s to agent tampering at the University of Southern California in the aughts. As this issue went to press, Yahoo Sports blew the lid off the latest installment, at the University of Miami, which, based on initial reports, may eclipse all other scandals in terms of scale and audacity. Off-field trouble, once a side project of the beat, has become the defining story of college athletics. Anyone who doubts it need only scan the header of espn.com’s homepage, which on many days reads like the abstract of a criminal indictment.
But the success of this work also belies a deeper problem with the coverage of college sports. The Scandal Beat exists as a kind of closed loop: a report of rules violations, an investigation, sanctions, dismissals, vows to do better, and then on to the next case of corruption where the cycle is repeated. The reporting, intentionally or not, promotes the idea that the corruption that plagues the NCAA is the problem, rather than merely a symptom of a system that is fundamentally broken. The Scandal Beat, with its drama and spectacular falls from grace, is much less adept at managing the next step: a robust discussion, prominently and persistently conducted, of why these scandals keep happening and what can be done to prevent them.

It’s always fascinating to read about rule violations at major collegiate athletic programs but isn’t there something a little off about this coverage?

Sports scandals, after all, aren’t like robberies; they’re really more like political scandals. A scandal beat is kind of like a crime beat. But even when they’re really good, beat reporters treat the beat itself as reflective of a more or less permanent fixture of society. But isn’t it more complicated?

Scandal beat sports reporters might know where all the bodies are buried, but why are there so many bodies anyway?

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer