Symposium Notes

On Thursday of last week, I attended a special symposium held at the University of Texas focusing on performance enhancing drugs and sports. The panel featured columnists from across the nation including Howard Bryant, Gary Jacobsen, Richard Justice, T.J. Quinn, Mark Fainaru-Wada, and Lance Williams. University of Texas professor John Hoberman, an author on the subject matter, was also in attendance. I got there a bit early just because I didn’t encounter nearly as much traffic as I planned on hitting. I killed some time reading a book before I finally went into the auditorium. I immediately saw Justice, whose attendance prompted me to go in the first place, and decided to introduce myself. We talked for a good 20-30 minutes about a bevy of topics. He’s a real engaging guy and extremely friendly. He mentioned that Red Sox have literally told Roger Clemens that whatever he wants to come play for them, he can have. Nothing is out of bounds. Justice said the biggest roadblock is that Clemens is enjoying retired life too much right now.

Soon the other panelists start filing in and I’m standing in this circle as if I’m just one of them. It’s a pretty cool feeling. They aren’t high-class celebrities or anything, but they also aren’t jerks just because they have achieved some status. Austin-American Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls is in attendance as a spectator, also a good guy.

With the event just about to get started, I grab my seat. Frankly, I was surprised that it wasn’t more crowded, but regardless, I was glad I went. Professor Hoberman moderates the first panel titled “When the big story is steroids. How sports journalists cover rumors and allegations of steroid use — and the stories they miss.” He starts with some introductory talk regarding the doping awareness in United States sports landscape as it tries to catch up to Europe. He also poses the question of whether or not the under 40 years old crowd is more likely to give someone like Barry Bonds a pass. He continues that polls suggest: yes. He cited New York Times and Denver Post polls that showed the age group’s inclination to overlook Bonds’ alleged misdeeds. He posits that the rampant academic doping in the classroom (adderall and Ritalin) might be a substantial cause for the leniency. Hoberman brings up the phenomena of selective coverage and selective indignation. The police enforcement field from city policeman to prison guards is heavy into steroids, yet little has been said of the issue since it was the topic of a story on a 1989 episode of 60 Minutes. Cycling, he says, is arguably the most drug-soaked sport of all and yet the issue is almost censored out of the sport. He then opened up to the panelists with this question: “How do you assess source reliability?” Some key points touched on by the panelists include:

  • Williams points out that for he and Fainaru-Wada, there was a federal investigation that made the situation they were in unique.
  • Fainaru-Wada says that the chasm from jokes and rumors to a published story is huge.
    Documentation vs. anonymity being the key.
  • Jacobsen, invited for his work on investigating steroids on the high school levels, says doping rumoring is absolutely rampant on the high school level. The break that he and his partner, Gregg Jones, got was when a mother found a vile in her son’s closet.

The conversation switches to source relations:

  • Quinn describes the tightrope walked by a beat writer of keeping your access to the teams intact while properly using the information gained by that access. Some beat writers feel that breaking the steroids issue open isn’t their job, to which Quinn contests is a load of crap (my words, not his). The feeling of protecting the game over reporting the facts isn’t journalism and has no place in the field of journalism.
  • Bryant continues to subject on beat writers treading that fine line and goes on to say that you cannot stick a story like this on the beat writer. It compromises the relationship of a beat writer. He says being closer to the steroids issue isn’t an advantage at all because of the high level of risk involved.
  • Williams concurs with Bryant regarding the notion that you can’t stick this kind of story on a beat writer and points how being relative outsiders was influential to he and Fainaru-Wada’s work.
  • Fainaru-Wada notes that the lack of education possessed by the writers about the drugs was a problem, too. This sets off a few comments from Quinn and Bryant with regards to excuse often put forward that “he can’t be using, he’s always in the gym” made by those realizing that being a gymrat in no way absolves someone as a potential user, rather heightens the suspicion.
  • Jacobsen notes that from one season to the next, seeing a player put on 20-25 pounds of muscle should set off red flags, yet many note the growth without following up on it.

The discussion continues centralized on players and the level of entitlement felt by many of them, entitlement on every level including the entitlement to use to drugs. Quinn asked Jacobsen how prevalent the entitlement factor is on the high school landscape. Jacobsen notes that it exists, especially within the superstars, but to a much lesser degree across the board.

Just prior to the Q&A on the first panel, the discussion turns to the backlash felt by investigative reporting in the sports world. Williams recalls the backlash against the AP writer that broke the McGwire-Andro story and Quinn recalls a story of the savagery felt by one of his mentors, Bill Gleason, after
Gleason questioned Michael Jordan about the Nike sweatshops immediately after the fourth championship. These examples highlight the risk that comes with going against the grain as a sports reporter.

I’ll focus on the second panel on Wednesday, which deals with the question of “Can Baseball Be Saved?” Like I said on Friday, I had a fantastic time at the symposium and I’m glad I went. Meeting those journalists was great and they were a joy to talk to during breaks as well as hearing them speak during the panel discussions.

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