Emmert and the Twitter explosion

Sometime during the afternoon Thursday, just before Ed O’Bannon’s lawyers started their cross examination of NCAA President Mark Emmert, CBS’s Seth Davis sent out the following tweet: “Amazing coincidence that the writers who always rip the NCAA and Mark Emmert all think the trial is going against him.”

Davis was right. For those of us following the case that has ramifications that could permanently change the way NCAA athletics are conducted, our choices for news about the trial are slim. The trial is not being broadcast or streamed live so we have to depend on twitter feeds from people who are in attendance. The result is that we must sift through their personal bias in order to understand the trial.

Reading the tweets, it appears the NCAA is in trouble. But then again, those who paid attention to the Casey Anthony trial, or worse, listened to what Nancy Grace had to say, believed that Casey Anthony killed her daughter Caylee. The jury, without the filter of media opinion, saw the trial differently.

As a media professor I try to convince my students to examine multiple sources and points of view in a story in order to get the best possible idea of what is really happening.

The Ed O’Bannon trial is rife with ethical and legal ramifications. In one sense it is easy to crucify the NCAA for its hypocritical use of athletes and their images. But there are good people who believe that amateurism is good for the NCAA.

This trial is a start in the process of making necessary changes. We need the people tweeting this to take an old fashioned journalism approach.

I just want the facts.



Media coverage and the NCAA vs. O’Bannon trial

Media coverage of the Ed O’Bannon vs. NCAA antitrust trial has been specifically slanted toward the side of the plaintiff.

Maybe that’s because so many interesting stories can be found when examining the O’Bannon story. For example, Stewart Mandel at Sports Illustrated had a wonderful column about Tyrone Prothro, a former wide receiver at Alabama, whose career was cut short due to an injury. He tried to write a book about his time at Alabama and wanted to run some photos of the incredible catch he made in 2005, and was told he’d have to pay $10 dollars per picture. He also got to see his catch run time after time on television as part of a Pontiac ad. He was never compensated for that ad. No one even thought of it.

It’s also easy to look at Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike shoe salesman who changed the way college athletics was looked at by introducing the term “shoe contract” to the lexicon of college coaches and administrators. When asked by the Knight Commission of Intercollege Athletics in 2001, “why should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?” Vaccaro replied:

“They shouldn’t, sir. You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir, but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it.’”

It’s easy to make a monster of the NCAA. The organization is filled with rampant greed. It’s just as easy to take aim at the five major conferences, those who are holding the rest of the organization hostage by threatening to create another division for their own uses. These are the guys who have destroyed countless traditional rivalries (Missouri/Kansas, Texas/Texas Tech easily come to mind) in search of better television deals.

The testimony from the trial is what we’d expect. Athletes take the stand and testify about the hours spent as athletes compared to the hours spent as students and we go over the list of scandals that have rocked the NCAA in recent years, including North Carolina, where athletes took sham classes in order to stay eligible and graduate.

And then the NCAA says that since athletes sign form 08-3a they have no rights, so they have no rights to their images. For the NCAA it’s that simple.

It’s hard to make that a staple to stand on and win media approval. But the NCAA doesn’t care about media approval, the NCAA cares about winning this case. The organization can say little that will affect how fans watch the games they love. Fans are going to watch Alabama play next year, no matter what happened to a wide receiver who made a wonderful play in 2005. He’s forgotten now. The truth is, the players, to the NCAA, are not as important as the conferences and the schools. The players keep leaving; the institutions remain. The players are not only replaceable; they constantly must be replaced. It’s all a matter of perspective. For the plaintiffs, the athletes, the case is about recognizing that athletes are at universities to compete athletically, that they are the reason fans come to watch games and networks pay billions of dollars to broadcast the games they athletes play. To the NCAA, the athletes are disposable pieces that fill out the uniforms that represent the specific teams and conferences that exist in the organization. Fans are paying to watch the teams and not the athletes. Therefore, athletes must be forced to give up their rights to their images on their first days on campus because keeping those rights would make it more difficult to maintain all their rules for eligibility. For the NCAA, this is an administrative issue.

This fits. Interview after interview of athletic administrators consistently returned the same answer when asking the question about allowing athletes to keep their rights to publicity.

“It would create a nightmare,” was the constant reply. “How would we keep track of who was doing what?”

How does the NCAA sell that to the media? They don’t. They just hope their argument makes sense to the judge.


Form 08-3a

For anyone who is following the lawsuit case between Ed O’Bannon and the NCAA, here is a quick lesson on Form 08-3 that athletes sign before they get to play a minute at their school. (http://www.ukathletics.com/doc_lib/compliance0809_sa_statement.pdf ) Basically, this form says that the athlete, in order to play college sports, gives up his or her image to the university, in perpetuity. The NCAA says that this doesn’t mean that an athlete can’t use their image after they graduate, it just says the NCAA can use that image for forever.

This isn’t a choice for the athletes. The form is more often signed as a group, adding peer pressure to any athlete who wants to question what this means. What it means is that athletes give up their rights to their image as soon as they walk on campus – if they want to play college sports.

This is the highlight of the unfair.


Jeffrey Sterling and the element of race

Among the many things the media missed concerning the Jeffrey Sterling trial, perhaps the most interesting narrative is that of race.

Race has driven this case from the very beginning, from the day that Sterling, a 1989 Millikin University graduate and CIA operative, was told by a superior at work that they didn’t think a “big black man speaking Farsi” would be able to recruit potential Iranian spies for the U.S.

This case screams race, but not just because Sterling is black. It has more to do with a black man fitting into a white society, then dealing with both worlds turning their backs on him.

In 2013, a group of my students from Millikin worked on a number of stories about Sterling. Following is the start of one of those stories, concerning Sterling and race. After it ends, I’m going to finish where the students left off:

Allyx Davison

Ashley Eiland

En 380 – Studies in Journalism

Millikin University

The image of Jeffrey Sterling never quite fit. Even when he was working for the CIA, it never fit.

One day while sitting in a break room eating his lunch, Sterling was approached by a fellow black colleague. The man looked at Sterling in surprise and asked “What are you doing here?”

“I work here,” was Sterling’s reply.

Sterling was happy to work at the CIA. “The Culinary Institute of America,” he joked, smiling fondly.  Fresh out of Washington University Law School and with a job working as a public defender, Sterling applied for a job with the Agency, and was hired. Sterling now worked for a historically white institution, one where the man in the break room was surprised to see another African American.

He enjoyed his job and spent much of his time traveling to Europe.

“I had to convince people to give up secrets about their country,” said Sterling. He was good at it, too. He thinks it helped that he “didn’t fit the mold of what people expected a CIA officer to look like.” With his shaved head and pierced ears, Sterling definitely did not look like the typical spy mold.

Even after everything that happened, Sterling would join up again in a heartbeat. “I still believe in the organization,” Sterling said. ”Regardless of my history there, I am absolutely proud to have been a part of the CIA.”

After training for years to learn Farsi and become a specialist on Iran and weapons of mass destruction, Sterling was thrilled to finally get to utilize all his training and travel to Iran. Until, during a conversation with a superior, when he learned he had been passed over for a project.

Sterling was floored.

He had spent weeks training for this mission. Why was he being pulled off the project?

His superiors were concerned that he would be unable to operate successfully as “a big black guy speaking Farsi.”                                        

Sterling’s response?

“When did you realize that I was black?”

 And with that, he filed a racial discrimination suit in 2001, the first racial discrimination suit against the CIA. He filed pro-se: on his own.

“If you don’t pick the battle to fight for yourself, you are not going to fight for anything or anyone,” Sterling said, “so what the hell is there, if you can’t stand up for yourself?”

The case didn’t go well. The court stated that “while we think there is merit to this case, it can’t go forward because of national security. This is a burden that Sterling will have to take on behalf of the country.”

Sterling couldn’t believe it. Taking one for the team “was not something I asked for…it was kind of a kick in the gut.”

The last thing he wanted was to be known primarily as an African American instead of just a man. He spent his life avoiding that image.


Building an image

Sterling paints a picture of himself as someone who defied the odds and overcame circumstances. He was the first of his family to go to college. The image Sterling grew up was not the reality he wanted for himself.

When searching for colleges, Sterling stumbled upon Millikin University in Decatur, Ill. His family was not in favor of him attending; they wanted him to choose a historically black university. Sterling, however, just wanted a good education.

“I didn’t give a damn if I was the only black person on campus,” he said.

Arriving on campus in 1985, Sterling already had his college career planned out. Millikin was going to be his way of “opening [himself] up to the world.”

His goal was law school. Sterling was an eager student. During the time Sterling attended Millikin, there was a rise in black organizations on campus. The Black Student Association (formerly “For Souls Only) had returned to the university, and black fraternities and sororities were present.

Sterling spent minimal time with these organizations, choosing to be with his friends and joined the fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon. While part of TKE, Sterling was the only black member. He remembers his time in the “Dead Heads” fraternity fondly. He did some charity work with a black organization whose name he couldn’t recall. Beyond that, he had no ties to the African American community at Millikin.

According to a study on the racial identity of African American men by Eric M. Bridges, assimilated people have attempted to join the majority culture and disconnected themselves from their community. The individual may seek to reduce, diminish, and/or reject their heritage. This individual may be overly sensitive when negative images are associated with themselves.

Losing this image

This might help explain Sterling’s reaction when passed over by the CIA. He had excelled without using race as a factor. Now, race was used as a factor against him. And when he fought back, his case was dismissed for national security reasons.

After filing suit, Sterling was unceremoniously dismissed from the CIA.

He only wished he could have been seen as a man beyond his race. “It’s not Jeffrey Sterling: black man. It’s Jeffrey Sterling who happens to be black.”

It’s something he has been fighting for his entire life.

In fact, in the memoirs that Sterling wrote that may never be published because the CIA forbade him to write about his racial discrimination suit, Sterling wrote this about himself:

“ In my memoir (which will most likely never be published) I wrote about feeling like a man without a country (because I didn’t fit in either the African American or White American worlds for various reasons), and that is where I am today.”

When all of this started, well over a decade ago, Sterling reached out to the black community for help.

“I talked with a lot of people,” he said. “I talked to the NAACP, the Rainbow Push Coalition, congressmen, senators, you name it. No one wanted to get involved in this.”

In fact, one person with considerable political influence actually advised Sterling to move to Canada. Of course, he refused. He didn’t think it would come to where it is today.

Today, Sterling waits, just like he has waited for over 13 years. He’s being prosecuted by a black Attorney General and a black President. He’s the focal point of an administration that promised to be the most transparent administration in history and has become one of the least tolerant. The administration’s stance against whistleblowers, it’s breaches of American’s privacy, the non-stop attacks against members of the media who report on government overreach is unequaled in U.S. history.

And it all started with a black man, educated at primarily white schools, who believed that he should be given the same chances to blend in at a primarily white workplace. He stood up for himself and got slapped down. He was told that his suit had merit but he needed to take one for the team. He was not allowed to publish his own story and he was blackballed from finding work in his chosen profession.

He was then accused of giving up an embarrassing government secret (one that has resulted in no harm to individual lives) to a journalist. Thirteen years later, he’s still waiting for a chance to have his say in a courtroom while the American press concentrates on the government’s obsession with forcing  journalist James Risen to either testify in the trial or go to jail.

Think this case isn’t about race? In America, a story like this could only happen to a black man.


The government case on Jeffrey Sterling

Jeffrey Sterling didn’t plan on becoming a CIA case officer. But one day, soon after receiving his law degree from Washington University, Sterling saw an ad in the paper and decided to give it a shot.

Little did he know that the ad in the paper would lead to a racial discrimination suit against a powerful government agency, a federal indictment under the Espionage Act and the ruination of any and all attempts to find gainful employment at anything.

“The man can’t even get a job at 7-11,” Edward MacMahon, Sterling’s lawyer, told a class at Millikin in 2013.

It didn’t start this way. Sterling loved his job at the CIA and received good work evaluations. He advanced and even got the opportunity to take on a new assignment recruiting Iranians to give information to the United States. Then, when an assignment stalled, Sterling went to ask what was going on. A supervisor to the Iran Task Force told him they didn’t think a “big black guy speaking Farsi” would be able to do the job since he would stick out.

“When did you realize I was black,” Sterling replied.

He followed with a racial discrimination suit against the CIA. The company managed to have most of his suit squashed because of national security reasons. Then, when Sterling asked the CIA to allow him to publish his memoirs, their edits were so deep that Sterling believed it gutted his story.

So he talked to New York Times reporter James Risen about his suit and the memoirs. Risen wrote a story about this in 2002.

In 2003, the government talked Risen out of writing a story about a failed plan to stall the Iranian nuclear program. In 2006, Risen mentioned that story in his book State of War. In 2011, the U.S. government officially indicted Sterling.

The government claims that Sterling talked with Risen out of spite, that after the publications review board refused to let him publish his memoirs, Sterling told them that he would “come at the CIA with everything at his disposal.” Sterling’s indictment

Sterling was portrayed as a bitter man who didn’t get his way and gave out classified information, willfully and knowingly breaking the law. Sterling denies this.

The government portrayed Sterling as a dangerous man and said that Sterling’s actions were worse than selling secrets to the enemy. In the U.S. government’s petition to keep Sterling jailed after his indictment, the prosecutor wrote:

“The defendant’s unauthorized disclosures, however, may be viewed as more pernicious than the typical espionage case where a spy sells classified information for money. Unlike the typical espionage case where a single foreign country or intelligence agency may be the beneficiary of the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, this defendant elected to disclose the classified information publicly through the mass media. Thus, every foreign adversary stood to benefit from the defendant’s unauthorized disclosure of classified information, thus posing an even greater threat to society.”

One simple point of fact: Risen’s revelations in his book did little harm to the United States government and it did not affect a live agent, despite the government’s disagreements. Politico’s Josh Gerstein wrote about that in 2011. (here and here.)

It did embarrass the United States government and that was enough for them to pursue the case.

Sterling claims innocence in the government’s case and has repeatedly stressed his desire for a trial to get the opportunity to prove that innocence.

But Sterling’s case has been overshadowed by the government’s fight with Risen, who refuses to testify and name his source. That case has been brought to the United States Supreme Court for review. It’s the Risen case that has the press’s attention. The Risen case highlights government overreach in trying to identify and eliminated whistleblowers within the federal government. It’s that case that threatens to put fear into the journalists who search for stories that will keep the government honest.

Of course, let a potential whistleblower know what’s happened to Sterling and that alone should send a chill through anyone considering doing anything that might embarrass the United States government.

(For those interested, here are many of the court filings in the Sterling case filings)

Up Next: The role of race in the Sterling case


Why Jeffrey Sterling’s story is important to me

Why am I so interested in the Jeffrey Sterling case?

I’ll admit, it all started out as a good idea for a class. I talked with Bill Freivogel about looking for a good story to help my students get things turned around at the Decaturian, the student newspaper that I am the faculty adviser for and he suggested Jeffrey Sterling, a 1989 Millikin alum who was one of the eight people who had been indicted under the Espionage Act during the Obama administration.

I looked into the case and it had everything for a good class.

You were able to combine media law (First Amendment rights, shield laws, etc.) with ethics and throw in a good whistleblower and you have an outstanding class. The class was going great and we were all learning a lot about the case when we actually got Sterling to come talk with the class.

That’s when it all changed.

I always tell my students that the best stories happen when we discover the people behind the story. Jeffrey Sterling’s story is one of the most powerful, sad stories I’ve ever heard.

It all started with a black man attending a pair of mostly white colleges. By all accounts he fit in well at Millikin and even joined a fraternity mostly known for having a good time. You can easily pick him out in the photos from then, he’s the black guy. Race never seemed to be an issue for him. He joined the CIA and advanced. He worked for the CIA for a number of years and advanced up the ladder. They asked him to learn Farsi so he could work in Iran. He learned the language. And then, he found out he wasn’t going to be sent to Iran. Why? They didn’t see how a “big, black guy” could get the results they were looking for in Iran. Sterling’s response: “When did you figure out I was black?”

“This ordeal has meant financial ruin for me. But, at the end of the day I have to be able to look myself in the mirror, and I could never do so without knowing that I fought with everything within me, without compromise.”

Sterling fought back. He filed suit against the CIA but was told that it couldn’t go to trial because the information that would have been used to determine the company’s discrimination was of a sensitive nature security-wise. Then the CIA told Sterling he couldn’t publish his memoirs, because they could give up sensitive information.

Sterling was powerless. He had lost his job, he couldn’t find work in Washington D.C. doing the normal work former CIA officers did and no one would listen to him. Except for a reporter from the New York Times. They talked about Sterling’s discrimination trial. The government says they also talked about a failed CIA mission in Iran. The information didn’t hurt any agents but it certainly made the U.S. government look bad.

The government then put taps on Risen’s phone, intercepted his email, looked into his financial records and invaded his privacy in every conceivable way to find out who his source was for the book “State of War”. They decided it was Sterling and indicted him under the Espionage Act.

If the story ended here, it would be a sad story. If Sterling gave the information to Risen, he broke the law. It’s a stupid law. It’s a law that gives the government too much power to control the media message it sends out to the American people. It’s a law that only three Presidents have tried to use this way (Nixon, George W. Bush and Barack Obama) but it’s still a law.

Here’s where the story goes off the tracks. It doesn’t end here. This is just the beginning. James Risen refused to name his source and took it to court. Risen’s case became a powerful media narrative about reporters and sources and government overreach. Sterling was forgotten.

But he’s still out there, under indictment. He tries to get a job, people look at his qualifications, they want to hire him, then they do a background check. No job.

He can’t defend himself in a court of law, he can’t clear his name. Sterling maintains his innocence. He wants the case to go to trial. He wants to get a chance to find some kind of closure.

He stood up to the CIA in 2001. For 13 years his life has been a wreck. This is worse than any prison sentence. This is cruel and unusual punishment.

We’d rather live in abject poverty with our heads held high, than merely ‘getting on with our lives’ through any sort of fallacious accord with the government, if to ever be proposed.”


And it has gone nearly unreported. Sure, Sterling’s name comes up often when people talk about the Risen case, but most reporters don’t even get the facts of the case right.

Midway through the class I taught that concentrated on the Sterling case, soon after they talked with him, I noticed a clear change in the class’s attitude. They no longer cared if he was guilty or innocent. They firmly believed that this man had paid a price that few, if anyone, had ever had to pay.

The man stood up for himself against the U.S. government. He lost. He was then purported to have given information to a reporter that embarrassed the government. He paid, without benefit of a trial, with years of a living purgatory with no means of absolution. A trial will finally give Sterling closure but his life has been ruined. Yet somehow, through all of this, the fighter that had the balls to stand up to the CIA pops back up.

“This ordeal has meant financial ruin for me,” Sterling said. “But, at the end of the day I have to be able to look myself in the mirror, and I could never do so without knowing that I fought with everything within me, without compromise.

“My wife and I joke about having to pick out our cardboard boxes to live in considering how long this is taking and how long it may continue.  Even though we joke about it, we do know it is certainly a possibility.

“But, as long as we have each other, it won’t matter if we’re penniless or not.  We’d rather live in abject poverty with our heads held high, than merely ‘getting on with our lives’ through any sort of fallacious accord with the government, if to ever be proposed.”

In the next few days I’ll be writing the story of Jeffrey Sterling. My students wrote theirs a year ago. You can find a copy of some of their stories (here) and (here).

Take a look and see what they’ve written. People need to know this story.