Analysis: ESPN Vs. Ohio State

Plenty of Buckeye fans have wondered what the ESPN side of things has been throughout the recent set of stories containing allegations about Ohio State. Dave Biddle takes a look at what ESPN has said publicly so far regarding the matter and offers up some thoughts on how things have been approached.

So why did they do it? Why did the editors of ESPN The Magazine allow Maurice Clarett's dirty laundry to be aired in their backyard? Clarett obviously had an axe to grind and ESPN gave him exactly what he wanted.

Well, ESPN says it is not to blame. It denies poor journalism was used and claims anyone in the industry would have ran with the story.

"I think there's probably no media organization in the country that wouldn't have gone with this interview," ESPN The Magazine editor Gary Hoenig said. "Did we think everything (Clarett) said was absolutely credible? We're asking the readers to make that judgment for themselves. We believe that some of his allegations are provable because we've gone out and done some of this investigation ourselves. But, there's certainly enough there to make it worthwhile to have the public make the judgment."

There are some points that can be made in ESPN's defense. The magazine did not go out "looking for a story." The author of the story, Tom Friend, claims someone in Clarett's camp contacted him to set up the interview. He admits the story just fell in his lap. He wouldn't say who set him up with Clarett, preferring to be vague.

"Well, it was in early October," Friend said. "I got a phone call from one of his associates who said, 'Would you be interested in talking to Maurice Clarett?' And obviously I said, 'Yes.' I hadn't heard much about him. He'd been out of the news. He'd been laying low.

"Everyone had talked to (former USC receiver) Mike Williams after he got denied by the NFL, but no one had talked to Maurice. I thought it was an opportunity to visit with him. I thought, basically, that the story would be about, you know, how the last year has been. What's been going on with him. What he looked like. What kind of shape he's in."

Friend didn't want to say exactly where he and Clarett met for the interview. But the person that set up the interview was likely involved.

"I met him at someone's home," Friend said. "Very quickly in the conversation he wanted to talk about Ohio State. How he felt wronged. How he felt the NFL people thought he was no good. 'They think I'm a bum, damaged goods, baggage.' (Clarett's associates) had made a call around the league to see what the perception was and it wasn't good. He had heard there were comments coming out of the Ohio State athletic department disparaging him and that didn't make him feel good."

So, there you go. How could anything Clarett said be taken seriously? His people contact ESPN and he admits he is still bitter towards the university. Shouldn't that send up red flags that he can't be trusted and this is merely a way of getting even with OSU for suspending him last year?

"Obviously when I hear a story like that as a journalist, I don't just run and put it in the magazine," Friend said. "Reporting has to be done along side that. Obviously when Maurice Clarett says something… you know his history, you know there's an axe to grind, so we need to go further.

"You have to understand, there were other players saying the same thing off the record. These other players also had some axes to grind. But, we continued to (investigate) the story. We reported the story and players were on the record now.

"I think in the process of journalism, we had the interview with Maurice, we had other players on the record and we decided that was a story. Even if Maurice says this alone, that is still probably a story, although that wasn't my decision."

Like Friend mentioned, there were other players that told tales of generous boosters and friendly professors. Never mind the fact that most of them were dropouts, or criminals, or both. Why not interview some ex-OSU players who actually played football at the school for four, or five years? You know, the ones that could make it past remedial courses. Or the ones that didn't get busted with drugs and guns.

"We did go to players who didn't have axes to grind," Friend said. "A lot of players who didn't have axes to grind just didn't want to go there. Ohio State is a big community and there is some fear."

Former OSU players like Marco Cooper and Sam Maldonado claim they were given the bait n' switch trick by ESPN The Magazine. They say they were told that the magazine was working on stories about their careers. However, the only places their quotes appeared were in the multi-part series about Clarett.

"I didn't interview Marco," Friend said. "I think everything was done above board there. I know he's taken back his comments, but in defense of Marco, he's living there. He's living there and that can't be easy. Maurice is not living there. It's a little bit easier for Maurice to hide.

"We have Marco's comments on tape. He is on the record. I don't know how he can take that back now. He is on the record. It's just like Clarett's comments. If someone goes on the record and tells you that, you are going to use it."

ESPN has a point in regards to having juicy comments on the record. That is gold in the journalism business. But when those comments include claims such as, "Mr. Such and Such gave me the money" it could turn into fool's gold real quick.

How does ESPN defend using these vague, second-hand statements? Why not actually do some research and find the true identity of Mr. Such and Such so people actually know he exists?

"We did pursue the identity of Mr. Such and Such and we have some information and our reporting is ongoing," Hoenig said. "But we did not have sufficient information to subject a private citizen to that exposure. There are rules that we have to play with that limit the amount of information we can expose in a piece like this. As long as we're willing to say, 'This is what Maurice says,' that's one thing. But when we're putting our own credibility on the line, we have to be very careful about accusations we're making about individuals - especially private individuals."

Whatever ESPN wants to say, a lot of journalists wouldn't have used the "Mr. Such and Such" comments. It would be too easy for Clarett to make something like that up. But Friend still defends his piece.

"I think it's not sophomoric," he said. "I think we tried to do the reporting on it and get these names (of the boosters). Of course we tried. We tried our best. (Clarett) wasn't going to say. I wish we had it documented. In a perfect world, we'd have every name. But we went to the dealerships, we went to Jim Tressel, went to Dick Tressel… or attempted to go to these people, and tried to do all the reporting around this.

"When Clarett's talking about the boosters, I don't think a coach can control all these kids. But he says the coaches would bring him in their office and say, 'Have you met such and such?' And if that's the way he wants to talk - if he doesn't want to name the names - that's his prerogative. He's saying a coach came to him and said, 'Have you met such and such? You should meet him here. You can go over to his house.' He's saying it was set up by coaches. You don't think every journalist would run that?"

Hoenig says he has been in the business for a long time and says the decision was an easy one to run the Clarett series.

"Maurice was willing to go on the record about a lot of specifics," he said. "Anyone that was in my business would have felt compelled to put it out there - especially if they had the information that we had."

But ESPN might be getting into a shady area. Are they going to run a story every time an athlete comes to them with an axe to grind?

"Any high-profile player of Maurice's status, on a team with a big-time football program like Ohio State's, that came to us with this kind of story, and was willing to go on the record, would get this same kind of forum," Hoenig said.

The editor warns that Clarett is not much different than many other athletes.

"There is almost no story you can do where the subject of the story doesn't have some kind of axe to grind," Hoenig said. "Sometimes it's not as obvious as this one, but they have a point in wanting to talk to the press. It's our job to sort through that and give the reader something to make their own judgment by, and that's what we did here."

There have been strong rumors that Clarett was paid for his story, but the magazine denies it.

"We would never do that in a million years," Hoenig said. "And anyone who suggests that is making an insult to the standards here at ESPN and ESPN The Magazine. It's absolutely not true. I know it's not true because we never gave him a dime."

OK, fair enough. Maybe ESPN gets the benefit on the doubt on that one. Clarett had plenty of incentive to crawl to them with his story, even with no promises to fill his wallet.

But where ESPN did cross the line was the way it piled on. It really didn't have many facts to report, so it juiced up the stories as much as possible. And why so many stories on this situation? If the magazine truly wanted to be unbiased and let the public make its own opinion, why run six stories, all of which bash OSU in some form? Where is the balanced reporting ESPN claims to have?

Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger is perplexed as anyone.

"I really don't want to talk about ESPN and their role in this story," Geiger said. "I've talked to my commissioner and to others about what their agenda might be and we're all a little mystified."

One good thing has come out of all of this: Geiger has proven once again why he is one of the best ADs in the business. Instead of sitting back and letting Clarett and ESPN take their shots, Geiger is firing back. He is defending his university and is confident the allegations will be disproven.

Geiger says he doesn't want to talk about ESPN's role, but at this point, he's forced to.

"I've been an athletic director for 33 years and in the business for 43 years and I have never seen an institution attacked in this way before and I think that for us to be silent… I'll do the best I can," Geiger said. "I can't violate the things that my lawyers have told me I can't violate, but I think it's very important for our university, for our fans, for our students, for members of my staff, who I'm so very proud of, it would be wrong to be silent. They deserve to have somebody stand up and say that we're doing well, we're proud of our program, we stand by our program, and we'll defend."

Geiger wonders why ESPN would only interview former players that were unable to make it at Ohio State if the magazine was truly interested in balanced reporting.

"The unusual aspect of the allegations that have come through ESPN is that the individuals that they have selected as examples struggled and I can't say more than that," Geiger said.

Note: Messages from to ESPN The Magazine have not been returned yet. The above quotes from Gary Hoenig and Tom Friend were borrowed from interviews from ESPN Radio's The Dan Patrick Show and WBNS 1460 The Fan's The Big Show, with Kirk Herbstreit and Damon Bruce.

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