Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Sports

March 2, 2008

Ink-Stained Investigators

New York Daily News sportswriters have broken some of the biggest stories on steroids in baseball. They say the doping era, and their coverage of it, is far from over.

Carl Bialik

Mark McGwire, the man who broke Roger Maris's record, used steroids, sources told the New York Daily News in 2005, spelling out the buttock-injection recipe. Rick Ankiel, the heroic comeback story of last baseball season, ordered human growth hormone, the Daily News reported. Last month, the News reported the identity of the trainer who supplied human growth hormone to the father of media favorite Andy Pettitte.

Christian Red, Michael O'Keeffe, Teri Thompson, and Nathaniel Vinton. Photo by New York Daily News staff.
"We set the table for the rest of the coverage in the country."

Christian Red, Michael O'Keeffe, Teri Thompson, and Nathaniel Vinton. Photo by New York Daily News staff.

These scoops were the product of a unique force in sportswriting: the New York Daily News sports investigative team. Editor Teri Thompson and writers Michael O'Keeffe, Christian Red, and Nathaniel Vinton have won awards for their coverage, even as they face a tough fight with ESPN, which has poached several newspaper reporters including former team member T.J. Quinn and fellow steroids reporter Mark Fainaru-Wada. Yet papers are cutting back on their general-news investigations, and few can afford much in sports beyond game stories and opinion columnists. "We break news and set the table for coverage in the rest of the country," the investigative team tells Gelf, in a joint emailed response to questions. "We think we're a good investment." They talked about unanswered questions in the steroids investigation, why the doping era is far from over, and what they'd have done with the Mitchell Report's budget.

The interview was edited for clarity. You can hear Thompson, O'Keeffe, Red, Vinton and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, March 6th, in New York's Lower East Side. (Thompson and O'Keeffe are co-authors of The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History's Most Desired Baseball Card, and were interviewed by Gelf last year.)

Gelf Magazine: What are the biggest remaining unanswered questions about baseball's steroids era?

Daily News Investigative Team (IT): It is not known how widespread steroid use was—and is today. Is use as high as Ken Caminiti's estimate of 80%? It's clearly above the 5%-7% level that players tested positive for in the 2003 survey year. Are players combining human growth hormone, which is not tested for, with levels of testosterone that fall below the 4-to-1 testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratios that trigger a positive?
• How will baseball be affected by this issue? Will fans and sponsors eventually walk away, as they did with cycling in Europe? Track & field in the US? Will the issue of a level playing field trump the desire for outsized performances?
• How much did baseball management know about steroid use, beginning in the 1990s and continuing today? We know they knew a lot—you can see that from just reading the Mitchell Report—so will managers, GMs, owners be called to account for what has happened in the game? Players are singled out for internal discipline and even prosecution—will that happen to those who run the game, too?
• Will the code of secrecy be broken? It's much more difficult to lie, distort, or mislead to law enforcement than it is to reporters who ask largely softball questions, or to the public in general.
• When will the NFL come under the same scrutiny as Major League Baseball?

GM: Is that era over, or are players using designer, undetectable drugs?

IT: The era is far from over, especially as long as there is not a viable test for human growth hormone. Steroid designers have been one step ahead of the testing police, and that probably won't change. The entry of law enforcement into the issue puts enormous pressure on players to clean up, but it also raises many other questions as evidenced by the Mitchell Report: Should the government have been allowed to share privileged information that was denied to the public with a private industry?

GM: The Times ran a big chart after the Mitchell Report came out showing which players were alleged to have taken steroids, and how their performance improved, or didn't, after their alleged use. Has it been convincingly demonstrated that steroids do help players' performance?

IT: They must work, or players probably wouldn't take the risk of using them.

GM: Given the Mitchell Report's budget, what would you have used the money for? What are the big areas of sport that need investigating?

IT: Bought a house in the Cayman Islands?

GM: Amid widespread newspaper cuts, do you worry the New York Daily News will no longer fund a sports investigative team?

IT: Our team produces a lot of work for the newspaper. We don't limit ourselves to longterm investigative projects. We break news and set the table for coverage in the rest of the country. We think we're a good investment.

GM: I'd guess the ratio of opinion sportswriting to investigative work is about 10 to 1, industrywide. Would you agree with that? Is that out of whack?

IT: We can speak to our own newspaper and the columnists at the Daily News reflect what's happening in the news, often contributing to our efforts, in particular. They are reporters as well as opinion-shapers, which is the key to good column writing.

"A sports reporter should be no different from any other reporter—the priority is informing the public. If being a fan of what you're covering gets in the way of that, it's a problem."

GM: Is it tough competing with ESPN in this realm? Did you try to keep T.J. Quinn?

IT: They certainly have a big staff, lots of money, multiple platforms. But again, we feel like we set the table for the rest of the coverage in the country, including ESPN. … Sorry, we don't discuss employ issues, but we are very happy with the latest addition to our team—Nate Vinton.

GM: Has covering this beat lessened your love of sports? Which baseball team do you root for?

IT: The love of sport is irrelevant to our coverage. We root for the story.

GM: Do you think a sports reporter who has a rooting interest for a player or team nonetheless can be fair to a story about that player or team?

IT: A sports reporter should be no different from any other reporter—the priority is informing the public. If being a fan of what you're covering gets in the way of that, it's a problem.

GM: What do you think about the way Congress uses the threat of perjury charges to try to coax the truth from people like Clemens and Marion Jones? Is Congress leaning too much on athletes?

IT: If you lie to the government, you face the possibility of prosecution. Unless it's a case of entrapment, you are fully aware of the consequences. Marion Jones did not testify before Congress but Roger Clemens asked for a congressional hearing, raised his right hand, and swore to tell the truth under the penalty of perjury.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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