After years as a sportswriter, Mark Fainaru-Wada (J89) was ready to pursue nonsports investigative journalism. That's when he landed the "story of a lifetime."
In 2003 Fainaru-Wada, then a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, and his colleague Lance Williams started investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, or BALCO, after a government raid on the company. They uncovered a steroids scandal.
Fainaru-Wada's in-depth research into the controversy — which included co-writing Game of Shadows — helped expose the drug culture in baseball and Olympic sports, leading to stricter testing policies and multiple revelations of steroid use among athletes. He spent more than four years working exclusively on steroid stories, dealing with hate mail and facing threats of jail time for not identifying his sources.
"There's nothing more rewarding than feeling like you're actually making a difference," Fainaru-Wada says. "In a lot of ways our investigations helped educate young people and create a national dialogue about steroids in sports."
Alan Abrahamson (J80), of NBC Sports and NBC.com, agrees that these issues have importance beyond sports. "These athletes are supposed to be role models," he says. "Their behavior affects children. If they are using steroids and cheating, what do you tell your kids?"
A certain amount of disdain has always existed for sports journalism. Non-sports fans tend to see sports coverage as frivolous, while some "hard-core" journalists see it as fluff or entertainment writing. While it's true that much of the sports discussion is not about life or death matters, the topics can often carry serious ramifications.
"The sports section is not an escape as it once was from daily life," says USA Today columnist Christine Brennan (J80, GJ81). "It's now a mirror of our daily life." Brennan points to numerous examples of "hard news" covered on sports pages: steroid use, arrests, strikes, contract negotiations and even untimely deaths.
ESPN producer William Weinbaum's (J82, GJ83) coverage of U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman's death — a "friendly fire" shooting in Afghanistan in 2004 — caught the attention of the U.S. Congress. Tillman was a star safety for the Arizona Cardinals until he retired from the NFL to enlist in the U.S. Army after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Weinbaum interviewed five of Tillman's fellow soldiers for an Emmy Award–nominated documentary that he produced on the accidental shooting for ESPN's Outside the Lines in 2006. During subsequent hearings, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that investigated Tillman's death requested a copy of Weinbaum's documentary.
"That story depended a lot on traditional forms of communication, in addition to the Internet," Weinbaum points out. "Face-to-face interviews were very important because every person I spoke with opened another door."
Both Fainaru-Wada, now part of ESPN's new investigative task force, and Weinbaum say today's technology and the increase in sports coverage helps investigative sports journalism, if practiced properly.
"All reporting is by its nature investigative," Weinbaum says. "Reporters always have to strive for multiple sources and accuracy. That was drilled into me at Medill." — R.M.