College sports wants your attention

We're here to give it the scrutiny it deserves.

By Daniel Libit

“If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we're up for grabs for the next charlatan…who comes ambling along."

Hello and welcome to Newsletter of Intent, a free college sports emailed tip-sheet from The Intercollegiate. What kind of publication is this? The kind that quotes Carl Sagan in its epigraph. Yeah, that kind.

The Intercollegiate, which officially launches today, is a public-interest journalism venture established upon the idea that the enterprise of college sports demands greater critical attention. Though we represent a droplet of skepticism in a sports media sea of fan-first euphoria, The Intercollegiate is here to make impactful ripples whenever and wherever possible — above and beneath the surface — in league with other such scrutinizers. 

To that end, we are proud to announce our partnership with the College Sport Research Institute, an academic center housed within the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina. CSRI sponsors the peer-reviewed Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics and hosts an annual conference in Columbia, S.C., which brings together researchers, students, reporters and industry professionals. In joining forces, we are hoping to amplify our abilities to increase the public’s understanding of key issues in college sports.

This will be an ever-evolving collaboration, but it will most definitely comprise The Intercollegiate’s two weekly outputs: the Newsletter of Intent and The Intercollegiate podcast.

Going forward, this newsletter will be coauthored by myself and The Intercollegiate’s Luke Cyphers, a former senior writer and editor at ESPN the Magazine and a founding member of the New York Daily News’ investigative sports unit. Luke has a deep reporting background in both Olympic and college sports, and has recently done some incredible journalism highlighting the exploitations of foreign-born prep school athletes. 

The NOI will feature original reporting and commentary, as well as a rundown of other news stories, scholarly work and esoterica we think is worth highlighting. The through-line of the newsletter will be a fixed focus on the shortcomings, failures, discrepancies and inscrutable aspects of college sports.

The Intercollegiate podcast, hosted by yours truly, will likewise endeavor to critically probe the subject, drawing upon the insights of a broad cross-section of guests who have analyzed, covered, litigated, politicked, challenged, participated, worked in and otherwise engaged college sports. Additionally, I’ll be regularly picking the brains of The Intercollegiate’s five-star recruiting class of expert contributors. The “Unpaid Labor” includes:

  • Maddie Salamone, a lawyer and former Duke lacrosses player who served as the chair of the NCAA’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee. 

  • Patrick Hruby, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who has, over the last decade, been at the vanguard of reporting on amateurism and concussions in college sports.

  • Tim Nevius, a former NCAA enforcement official who has since become a sports lawyer and college athlete advocate.

  • Karen Weaver, a former Division I and III National Championship head coach and director of athletics, who is now an associate clinical professor of sport management at Drexel University.

  • Anthony Crudup, a former Division I football player whose Twitter feed has become a must-read source of fact-based rebuttal to college sports’ going canards.

You can read more about these fine folks, and all of us involved in The Intercollegiate, by clicking here.

A podcast? A newsletter? How positively innovative, I know. But alas, if The Intercollegiate fails to distinguish itself with its delivery systems, perhaps it will through its disposition.

Here, then, you should probably know where I’m coming from.

I am not a college sports reporter, at least insofar as I have never professionally covered a college sports beat. Up until Election Night 2016, I was a political journalist and erstwhile panda sex writer. Indeed, for most of my life, my relationship to college sports has been purely that of a fan. But in 2011, I freelanced two stories that began to forge my thinking about this mad world and how it goes accounted for. My rosetta stone was a story I wrote for Deadspin about college basketball coach Bruce Pearl, then freshly scandalized at Tennessee, and his apocryphal drama with the NCAA’s rulebook, while an assistant at Iowa.

The Deadspin piece was my second try at a Pearl story, having written a God-awful (and yet, award-winning) magazine story about the man, four years prior, in which I compared his self-inflicted career challenges to his Jewish ancestors wandering in the Diaspora and escaping pogroms. (Fuck me.)

Anyway, in retracing Pearl’s formative tale of tattling, with the benefit of a do-over, it was harder to see him as a hero than opportunist in an industry teeming with them. More importantly, his story so clearly evidenced the bad faith, cravenness, and selective ethics of the regulatory environment he careered in.

And yet, sports journalism, even at its most discerning, has often ceded its moral intuitions to the college sports establishment.

In an October 2011 piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, I wrote about the evolution of “The Scandal Beat,” which had culminated, at that moment, with the unearthing of the Ohio State “Tattoo-gate” affair. Through the persistent work of several national media outlets, and the country’s top investigative sports reporters, the public eventually learned that numerous college football players at OSU had, over the years, received free tattoos and other small handouts from local businesses.

Players were suspended, head football coach Jim Tressel resigned under pressure, and the Buckeyes were made to vacate all their victories and Sugar Bowl championship from the previous season. Sports journalism had claimed a pelt. But to what good? As I wrote in CJR:

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.

It’s certainly not just sports journalism that has made this capitulation: over the years, American newspapers have won Pulitzer prizes for reporting stories about the breaking of rules that serve only to maintain the power structure of the NCAA and its members. More recently, the Justice Department has decided to take up this cause.

Roughly the same week my CJR piece went to press, famed historian Taylor Branch dropped his 14,000-word Daisy Cutter on college sports’ most protected pet interest: the earning restrictions of its athletes under the pretense of amateurism.

Branch’s treatise in The Atlantic, while perhaps the most consequential, was not the first long-form strike at the heart of intercollegiate athletics’ business model. Now and again, there had been books, newsmagazine and public radio segments that set upon artifice of the NCAA’s education-first mission statement. That notwithstanding, the regular media coverage of college sports still has primarily catered to the whims of the fan.

Five years and a Donald Trump presidential election later, I decided to try my hand at a different kind of college sports reporting, one focussed exclusively on accountability journalism.

How would an athletic department fare against persistent watchdog journalism?

I chose as my test subject the University of New Mexico — my hometown program and childhood obsession. In picking that program, I might as well have just thrown a dart against the map. There was nothing exceptionally target-rich about UNM: it wasn’t a known factory of scandal. As a mid-major program in a media dessert, it wasn’t particularly known for anything.

Six days before the 2016 election, I set up a blog, purchased the domain name “NMFishbowl.com", and started firing off public records requests to UNM from 1,300 miles away in Chicago. I planned to do this for a month, two at most, and then get back to paying work covering politics. But then I so quickly started finding problems.

These weren’t Larry Nassar or Jerry Sandusky or “Paper Class” kinds of problems, nothing that would obviously rise to the purview of a grand jury (or so I thought). These were just the garden-variety offenses one could likely find in any number of athletic departments: a questionable arena naming-rights deal; the hiring of problematic coaches with unaffordable contract buyouts; fudged attendance figures; conflicts of interest; player concerns; budget missteps; still more budget missteps; half-assed internal investigations; political hackery; and ongoing efforts to keep it all on the down-low.

For two-plus years, I immersed myself in this remote study of a college athletic department’s perverse incentive structure: the rhetoric, the internal politics, the finances, the public relations, and the psychology of it all. The difference for UNM was that it was now made to explain decisions and practices that so often pass for business as usual. What more, the university had to do so without the useful diversions of a winning football or men’s basketball team.

Even from afar, my nagging presence — I made 400-plus public records requests and filed four public record lawsuits — created an unmistakable observer’s effect.

The athletic department’s crisis communications effort floundered as local reporters in New Mexico began their own investigations into the program, discovering, for example, irregularities in how a booster golfing trip to Scotland was paid for. The university’s accreditor soon took notice, as did the offices of the New Mexico state auditor and attorney general, which both opened up investigations into the program. In the fallout, former Athletic Director Paul Krebs was indicted on five felony counts, becoming the first Division I AD since Penn State’s Timothy Curley to face criminal prosecution for job-related activities.

To the rest of college sporting world, New Mexico became just another disgraced program to favorably contrast itself with: can you believe what’s going on in Albuquerque? I was nearly deified by fans of UNM’s southern rival, New Mexico State; on a fan-site message board, one such supporter proposed that I receive an honorary degree from that university.

“New Mexico athletics awash in scandal,” blared the headline of a column from the San Diego Union-Tribune, hometown paper of a New Mexico conference foe. Sports writer Mark Zeigler got to the real heart of the matter:

“There’s also the optics of having one of your most prominent athletic departments – New Mexico ranks second behind (San Diego State) in most Mountain West team titles over the last five years – aglow in scandal, like a nuclear fuel rod, at a time when the conference is desperately trying to remain nationally relevant.”

Did I just get lucky, so to speak? In choosing to investigate New Mexico, did I just happen to stumble upon one of college sports’ more fertile cesspools? Logic suggests not.

Earlier this year, having dedicated 152,000 words to the ills the Lobos, I thought it was (well past) time to broaden my scope.

So, here we are.

Since spring, I’ve spent most of time trying to figure out how best to tackle this large beast. Clearly, I don’t have the bandwidth to treat the national college sports scene as I did New Mexico, with magazine-length investigations that took months to report. Still, I believe in the value of public-records-driven journalism and think it is underutilized in this realm. The Intercollegiate will be similarly ravenous on this front.

Prior to launch, we have already obtained thousands of pages of public records from athletic departments around the country. Some of these documents will emerge in future newsletters; many will be open-source published on The Intercollegiate’s “Library” page (coming soon); and still more will be passed off to other reporters and researchers. As with CSRI, collaboration is at the core of what The Intercollegiate hopes to be: a Johnny Appleseed for the scrutiny of college sports.

While most of the followers of this subject are consumed by its pageantry, there are certainly those inclined to question and challenge its norms. The Intercollegiate will operate as a hub and signal-booster for these kind of critical perspectives.

It certainly does feel like we’ve arrived at a potential moment of reconciliation for college sports, what with “Name, Image, and Likeness” legislation rapidly sweeping the country. College athlete economic rights, once the bespoke concern of a handful of academics and reformers, now seems like the only bipartisan initiative the nation can converge on. In important areas like this, the light is slowly beginning to shine through.

We’d like to shine it brighter.

Here’s how you can help us:

  • Please subscribe to this newsletter and the podcast (you can listen to our inaugural episode, featuring CSRI Director Richard Southall and Intercollegiate contributor Patrick Hruby).

  • Please share this with your friends, colleagues, assistants and support staff.

  • Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

  • Please send us tips, links, ideas, comments, suggestions, and questions.

  • Please consider being a financial supporter of our work.

We look forward to returning to your inbox next week with something I don’t think you’ll want to miss.


Daniel Libit is the creator and coeditor of The Intercollegiate and host of The Intercollegiate podcast. Prior to his detour into college sports journalism, Libit spent over a decade covering national politics as a staff reporter for Politico and The Daily, and a contributing writer for National Journal and CNBC.com. He resides in suburban Chicago. You can email him at dlibit@theintercollegiate.com and follow him on Twitter.