MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
New Year's traditionally is one of the biggest days in college sports - prominent bowl games. Think the Rose Bowl. They command the sports media's attention. In recent years, though, college sports coverage has shifted away from a singular focus on entertainment. There's more hard-edged reporting on issues such as paying athletes or the disproportionate power and wealth of university athletic departments. NPR's Tom Goldman has this story about a journalist who has embraced the shift and become a college sports gadfly with plenty of targets.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: With his new journalistic venture, The Intercollegiate, Daniel Libit wants to examine college sports skeptically. He knows he's treading on sacred ground.
DANIEL LIBIT: I am totally appreciative and empathetic and have experienced the emotional connection to a college sports team.
GOLDMAN: He was a fan.
LIBIT: My lasting memories with my mom was going to watch New Mexico Lobo basketball games.
GOLDMAN: But the 37-year-old former political reporter decided it's more important to move beyond fandom and train his sights on a multi-billion-dollar college sports industry inextricably linked to the American higher education system, a link he just doesn't get.
LIBIT: I continue to fail to see what any of this has to do with higher ed.
GOLDMAN: There is, he acknowledges, value in college athletes getting an education they might not have otherwise and value in athletic competition. But all too often, Libit says, what happens in college sports has less to do with the benefit and education of athletes and more to do with winning for the athletic department.
LIBIT: Bringing in more donors, bringing in more revenue. And that revenue ultimately goes to pay for salaries for an executive class of athletic administrator and coach, who's the real beneficiary of this system.
GOLDMAN: A system Libit began scrutinizing full time three years ago.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It is a mess. The state auditor's report on UNM's athletics department paints a picture of a department that did not understand basic accounting rules.
GOLDMAN: The University of New Mexico, Libit's alma mater, proved to be fertile ground. He helped unearth those financial problems with the athletic department. Fueled by endless public records requests, Libit broke a bunch of stories, including how the athletic department's problems threatened the university's accreditation. This year, Libit decided to expand his focus. He figured New Mexico's problems were reflected in many athletic departments. At the end of October, he launched The Intercollegiate, what he calls a watchdog journalism project that includes a website, newsletter and a podcast.
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LUKE CYPHERS: Hello.
LIBIT: Hey, Luke.
LIBIT: All right.
GOLDMAN: Longtime sports journalist Luke Cyphers joined Libit on the project. They talk stories regularly, Libit in Chicago, Cyphers in New York.
LIBIT: I'm, like, trying to break away from doing name, image, likeness stuff for an issue.
CYPHERS: Yeah. Well, I don't think that's terrible to keep it going because it's on the front burner right now. It's what everyone's talking about.
GOLDMAN: Athlete compensation is a big story right now after California passed its law allowing college athletes to be paid for the use of their name, image or likeness. But there are many more issues where Libit and Cyphers want to turn their attention - athlete health and safety and athlete abuse. Larry Nassar's serial sexual abuse at Michigan State has been a major story. But abuse in all its forms is a common and underreported phenomenon at schools across the country.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Rebound by Otto. And that will do it. That was an explosive first half for UC Riverside, a dominant one.
GOLDMAN: The women's basketball team at the University of California Riverside, for instance, has been embroiled in an abuse scandal over the past year.
GIULIANA MENDIOLA: My name's Giuliana Mendiola. I'm an assistant women's basketball coach.
GOLDMAN: Or at least Giuliana Mendiola was a coach, a popular coach for seven years at UC Riverside. Last summer, the school didn't renew her contract. During her tenure, she raised concerns with school officials about the team's longtime head coach, who resigned three months ago after an investigation. Now Mendiola's speaking out about what she says was the coach's pattern of emotional and verbal abuse.
MENDIOLA: During one of our games, he called a player a [expletive] loser. Excuse my language, but that's the words he used.
GOLDMAN: Mendiola says the coach pressured players to return quickly from injuries, or else they'd lose their position on the team or lose playing time.
Did he ever threaten scholarships?
MENDIOLA: Yes, he did, absolutely.
GOLDMAN: UC Riverside is not an uncommon story, says Daniel Libit, especially in women's sports. He launched The Intercollegiate by printing reams of athlete exit interviews from schools. Some reveal stories of punitive and indiscriminate punishment or inappropriate personal comments by coaches. They are told by athletes finished with their careers. Former UC Riverside Coach Mendiola, who's suing the school for employment discrimination and retaliation, notes a lot of the public support she's gotten is from former players. She says current athletes often feel voiceless, unwilling to speak up or push back.
MENDIOLA: Because they're in fear. They're in fear of losing their scholarships. They're in fear of being threatened. It really bothers me because you're dealing with kids who aren't yet developed to deal with these kinds of things. So it allows the people in a position of power to continue to not just use their power but abuse their power over them because they know they can.
GOLDMAN: Daniel Libit says UC Riverside, like many schools, responded favorably to his records requests and provided exit interviews from the last year. Women's basketball was one of a handful of sports that didn't have the interviews. In a statement provided by the university, the athletic director said, the well-being of our student athletes, along with the culture and environment created for them, are of paramount concern to us. We take these matters very seriously.
When Libit released all those documents, he invited other journalists to dive into the records, so there could be an open collaboration. He says, in fact, his work is not as lonely as it once was. More mainstream college sports media are balancing boosterism with skepticism. And it's buoyed by shifting public attitudes. A recent survey by Seton Hall University showed 60% of those polled support college athletes getting paid for the use of their name, image or likeness. Libit says the plates are shifting beneath the feet of college sports, even inside that world, where he says some of his good sources work in athletic departments, including athletic directors.
LIBIT: There are people who like the gist of what I do because they are true reformers. They like college sports. They more or less like college sports as it exists today. They just want to sand off some of the rough edges.
GOLDMAN: How long before significant sanding? That's anyone's guess. The NCAA is an organization notoriously slow to reform. For Daniel Libit, that's OK. It means more work. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say the University of New Mexico is Daniel Libit's alma mater. It is actually his hometown college.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.