Academic fraud only shocks papers

On Wednesday, March 10, I was the first one to work. This never happens; I usually sleep late.
The Minnesota Daily was dark and quiet at 8 a.m. as I went in early to finish a paper that was due that afternoon. I tend to put things off.
As editor of the city desk, reporters bombard me with queries regarding their stories. On that day, with so much work before me, I would have to implore them to save their questions until after I finished my paper. I never got started.
A quick trip to Bruegger’s on Washington Avenue spurred the deluge. I had hardly uttered “two blueberry bagels” when the headline on the St. Paul Pioneer Press held by the man in line behind me caught my eye: “U Basketball Program Accused of Academic Fraud.”
Full, banner headline; front page replete with mug shots, pull quotes, the words “Special Report.” Something was definitely amiss. I stepped outside to see what the Star Tribune in the newspaper box had on this.
Not a word. It was a fine, sunny, normal day in Strib-land.
And so it was; the St. Paul paper had its big scoop. They deserved congratulations, and the Daily — as well as the Star Tribune — deserved to be scrambling.
But in the newspaper business, any day is a good day for a scandal — even when you’re a student with a final paper due. We had just been dusted on our home court, but we still had a good story. I knew we had our work cut out for us that day. I also knew I would be turning in my paper pretty late.
Luckily, ace senior reporter Scott Larson — to whom the more gelatinous, consequential stories are usually deferred around here — came into work early at my behest. It was just after 9 a.m. He had eight hours to put something together. I was glad I wasn’t him.
And of course, conveniently, nearly every major player in this story was out of state.
“I was calling all over the nation,” Larson said. “I was calling (men’s athletic director Mark) Dienhart in Kansas City, (former athletic director McKinley) Boston in Indianapolis, Clem (Haskins) and the team in Seattle. And then (University President Mark) Yudof was in Florida.”
Later in the evening, as the previously dispersed University powers-that-be convened at Morrill Hall for a damage-control conference with notoriously busy General Counsel Mark Rotenberg, it became clear that the Daily would have to go with what we had: the Pioneer Press’ story, wire reports and television interviews; a former professor who wouldn’t be named; and a University spokeswoman who talked in neat little circles.
While we were virtually clambering to cover our asses, Larson did a solid job of synthesizing the story, everyone went home late that night and I started to brainstorm excuses for my late paper.
And with only one more publication date before a two-week Daily hiatus for finals and spring break, we couldn’t do much more than watch the story unfold, hoping that when we came back, the news would still be fresh.
Well, by the time we did get back, it was more than fresh — it was a full-scale freshness war. The Star Tribune pounced on the story with a vengeance, turning its most experienced reporters loose on it, who in turn rooted out every detail — from Courtney James’ bogus term papers to Jan Gangelhoff’s new library card in Danbury, Wisc. The Pioneer Press never let up, determined to maintain a hold on the can of worms they so gleefully opened.
For the next five or six weeks, it was an exhaustive, neck-and-neck sprint to the day’s best headline, and I bet it sold a ton of newspapers. By the time the Daily got back into the race, the local metros had expatiated the topic to death. Meanwhile, the University had successfully circled the wagons, determined to keep media access at a minimum.
“The U had released what they wanted to release,” Larson said. “The weekend after the story broke, I could just feel the paper shredders going.”
Since then, uncovering this story has become increasingly difficult. Citing convoluted privacy tenets, University employees — from the top of the administration and athletic department to the lady at the registration window — are throwing up uniformly constructed verbal barriers, as if issued from the very top.
It’s the first crisis of the Yudof administration, and the jury will be out for quite awhile on how well things were handled.
The standoff continues. So much time, so much attention, so much energy has been devoted to this story. Everyone’s weighing in, and with an official investigation underway, it’s hard to know where the program might land. Students are upset at the notion that basketball players get a free ride through school, the media is upset because their access is being blocked, and I begin to wonder: Is this all worth it?
Is there really that much shock and outrage over a handful of players — most of whom were barely Division I material — having work done for them? Did anyone really believe that these guys were working as hard as the rest of us?
In the three classes I’ve had with basketball players, I recall seeing them on syllabus day and never again. They were never there, and yet, nobody balked. I’ve always assumed that athletes in our top programs were being pushed along as if by the kind of firm decree allegedly issued by Clem Haskins.
(Before I get flooded with letters, I’ll acknowledge that there are athletes who study just as hard — many harder — than most of us. These people are truly amazing, dedicated and focused individuals. I’ve met some. I don’t understand that kind of drive and devotion; I can only admire it.)
I don’t think this kind of thing is unique to Minnesota. I’d wager that a full-blown investigation of all collegiate men’s athletic teams at all successful programs across the country would yield scandal after scandal — and we’d all be bored to tears with it. Athletes are treated differently, folks. It’s been going on since the birth of the sports-equals-money equation, and it will continue until the NCAA decides that it’s time for sweeping changes.
Yes, it’s the newspapers’ job to uncover inequities. Yes, the way some athletes are coddled through college is a glaring example of just that. But six weeks of front-page headlines? Please.
But these stories of scandal were important, dammit — academic fraud?! Players not doing their schoolwork — not making grades?! Why, it’s an atrocity, and the media was determined to expose its ugly face, turn up every element, blow this thing wide open …
And suddenly …
The Animal Liberation Front wreaks havoc on two University labs. Things heat up in Kosovo. A bizarre shooting spree rocks a Colorado high school.
Where are the Gophers stories now?
Most likely, the exhaustive investigation of these allegations will lead to a major purging of some as-of-yet unnamed branches of the athletic department here at the University, and the headlines will flare up once again.
Either that, or we’ll have another string of slow news days; maybe I’ll get some papers written.
Josh Dickey’s column appears on Tuesdays. He welcomes comments to [email protected]