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MORRISSEY: As SI’s Oklahoma State series shows, sportswriters can’t be fans

A banner hanging from suite Boone Pickens Stadium Stillwater Okla. pokes fun recent Sports Illustrated series thalleged donors had given

A banner hanging from a suite at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., pokes fun at a recent Sports Illustrated series that alleged donors had given white envelopes containing cash to Oklahoma State football players. | Brody Schmidt/AP

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Updated: October 23, 2013 6:27AM

The Oklahoma State scandal has turned into a journalism lesson, but perhaps not in the way many of you think it has.

University supporters are giddy that some of the main characters in Sports Illustrated’s recent exposé of the Cowboys’ football program have come forward to say they were misquoted. That’s not the journalistic issue here. It’s certainly not what allowed Oklahoma State fans to breach SI’s solid reputation in the first place.

The bigger issue is that Thayer Evans, one of the writers of the five-part series, is purportedly a huge fan of the University of Oklahoma, the Cowboys’ in-state rival. By many accounts, Evans has a rooting interest in the Sooners’ football program. I’m not here to argue whether he does or doesn’t or even whether his reporting on Oklahoma State was informed by negative feelings for that institution.

I’m here to tell you that public perception says Evans is a Sooners-loving, Cowboys-hating fanboy. That perception did major damage to SI’s series, which was taking on water almost from the beginning because of it.

I’m also here to tell you that this is a good example of why sportswriters shouldn’t root for teams, even teams they don’t cover. That will sound unfair, if not draconian, to my sportswriter friends who enjoy cheering for something. It’s not. It’s a way to wall yourself off from people looking for a reason to doubt your fairness.

Months before the Oklahoma State scandal broke, I had a discussion with a sportswriter who, like me, had attended Northwestern. He is a big Wildcats football fan and a big supporter of golfer Luke Donald, who also went to NU. He covers neither of those sports, though I suppose there’s a chance he might down the road. He said if he were assigned to cover Northwestern, he could put aside his loyalties.

He probably could. But as the Oklahoma State scandal has shown, it doesn’t matter what the writer thinks. The public’s perception, given whatever a sportswriter has said in the past on TV shows, written on message boards or put on Twitter as a fan of his favorite school, is that his underwear matches the school colors.

To align it with the Oklahoma State situation, imagine if my friend were the lead writer on a story into unsavory recruiting practices at Illinois. Think Illini fans would be all over his love for NU? Me, too. And it would hurt
his story.

The Oklahoma State controversy is a wonderful lesson for journalism students. You never know when you might be pulled into a story that puts you in a very awkward position and allows critics to reduce your reporting to rubble, even if the criticism isn’t fair.

Journalistically, I was brought up in the post-Woodward and Bernstein era, a time when you questioned everything and didn’t trust anybody. You weren’t supposed to be friends with the people you covered. Friendly was OK, but not friends. This applied to relationships with coaches, athletes and team management.

I have a buddy who often cozied up to the NFL players he covered. What happens, I asked him back in the day, when the running back you’ve had drinks with, the one you’ve been hanging with for a year, gets busted for DUI? What if you’re the one he calls from the jail to get bailed out? My friend mumbled something and kept up his relationships.

Or what if you learn the college football coach you can call at any time, the one you like to have dinner with when he comes through town, is physically abusive to his players? Are you going to blow the whistle on him? Probably not because you’re his friend. But guess what? You’ve been co-opted.

My approach comes with a cost. It’s not easy telling an editor that the reason you’ve been beaten on a story is that your competition has sucked up to a player and has the journalistic scruples of a supermarket tabloid. Sounds like sour grapes. On the other hand, you sleep pretty well at night.

While lots of my fellow Medill School of Journalism grads are beyond excited about the NU football team’s 3-0 record heading into their game Saturday against Maine, it’s simply a story to me, a good one. You’ve probably heard journalists say that they root for the story, not the team. That’s how it should be.

The SI headache is a reminder that there’s no cheering in the press box, even when you’re not in it.

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