The greatest line in Dan Le Batard’s tut-tutting Miami Herald column this morning is as concise as one of those Smith Magazine six-word memoirs, a tiny oxymoronic contortion: “Circumstantial evidence is not actual evidence.”
But I think what Le Batard means to say is that circumstantial evidence doesn’t constitute proof. As anyone who watched Casey Anthony’s trial knows, circumstantial evidence is, in fact, a form of evidence (the inclusion of the word “evidence” is your clue there). And Charles Robinson’s bombshell Yahoo! Sports piece on University of Miami football and booster/felon Nevin Shapiro is chockablock with evidence that he lavished money and gifts on UM players over the year, virtually in plain sight of the administration. Le Batard cites blogger Vishnu Parasuraman’s exhaustive comb-through of the Yahoo! story as an indication that the story has holes. I tend to agree with Parasuraman that not every one of Shapiro’s claims against a former player appears rock-solid, at least based on what the story cited. But while signed confessions from all 72 players implicated would have been ideal, I don’t blame Yahoo! for running with somewhat less.
I asked Robinson whether Shapiro’s claims ever ran contrary to the corroborating evidence Yahoo! could dig up. To put it another way: Regardless of Shapiro’s rap sheet, was he a reliable source in the context of this investigation? Robinson’s written response:
To answer your question, no, there was never anything that Nevin Shapiro told us that we identified as a lie. As we’ve told anyone who has asked, he named well over 100 players in our talks, and we trimmed the list to 72 because there were players who we could not get a corroborating piece of information on. So this idea that we just took Nevin Shapiro’s word as gospel is pure fiction. As for the holes that people are attempting to poke in the story, we feel absolutely solid on everything we have reported. The fact is, neither Dan Le Batard nor a fan blog is privy to all the aspects of our reporting. They don’t know who our sources are, they don’t know who we are protecting, and they have no idea what the content of all of our interviews exposed. We’re fine with criticism and questions. We endured both when we printed our stories on USC, Ohio State, North Carolina, Uconn and others. And each time, it was proven that we were correct in our reporting. We don’t feel any less confident with our Miami coverage.
That’s a fair description of most thorough investigative projects, so you might wonder why the star sports columnist at the Herald would choose this particular angle from which to address the story. The reporters spent most of a year picking at Shapiro, a convicted felon, who spent, the article says, “100 hours of jailhouse interviews” describing his vast graft to dozens of players. It’s the kind of investigation that gets Pulitzer attention — the Herald ought to know, having won 20 Pulitzers of its own. Look at George Dohrmann’s work on the University of Minnesota’s basketball team (beat reporting Pulitzer, 2000) or Jeffrey Marx and Michael York scouring Kentucky basketball (investigative reporting Pulitzer, 1986). The story when I worked at the Lexington Herald-Leader was that the building’s glass wall facing the street, allowing everyone to see the presses, had to be fortified: pissed-off UK fans were driving by and peppering the newspaper’s building with gunfire while that investigative series ran. Both it and the Minnesota investigation led to massive sanctions against those respective schools, and if the NCAA brings the hammer down on the U following Robinson’s exhaustive piece on the ’Canes, you should expect to hear his name mentioned in the same conversation next spring when journalism back-patting season is in full swing. Already it’s clear he was treading much of the same ground as federal investigators, a good sign.
But all the evidence is circumstantial! Incomplete! And it’s just salacious, besides, with talk of strippers and abortions and sex for hire. (The Yahoo! piece includes the phrase “scores of prostitutes,” which may in fact be the most perfect phrase in the whole story.) Apparently when the Orlando Sentinel, where Robinson once worked, got ahold of him to ask about the story, his investigative burden came up. Here’s what Robinson explained:
It took nearly 100 interviews with other sources, 20,000 pages of financial and business records from Shapiro’s bankruptcy case, more than 5,000 pages of cell phone records, 1,000 photos as well as interviews from his federal case to corroborate what the booster said.
Robinson said he told Shapiro that he needed full access to financial records, passwords to email accounts, all photographs and other documentation to substantiate his claims.
“I essentially told him, ‘I want everything that proves you were a person who exists for the past 10 years,’ and he agreed,” Robinson said. “And almost immediately after we had that conversation in December, I began receiving boxes and boxes via Fed Ex of documents and phone records, credit card bills that all told were in the millions of dollars, bank statements that were in the millions of dollars, business records. It was literally an endless stream of paper.”
Believe it or not, poring through the claims of a convicted felon is dull, thankless, tedious work, so when that slog turns up something worth printing, it’s jarring to see a sportswriter asking everyone to refrain from enjoying it. Le Batard points out that anti-UM bias is fueling some of the glee over the story. That’s no doubt true. Before I lived in Miami (and worked at the Herald, for a short stint) I thought the Hurricanes were the most loathsome pricks in college football. Since then, I’ve revised that opinion enough that I can root for them to beat Florida State. When it’s Miami we’re talking about, the worst is fun to believe. What makes this even sweeter for so many fans, though, is how meticulously it was documented.
Le Batard could be read this morning as a cooler head trying to prevail in a media shark tank incited by the taste of blood. Le Batard again: “What is happening now is just noise, so many fans and haters of UM consumed by confirmation bias, holding up partial information as proof of what they want or don’t want to be true. But precious little of what we’ve seen amid this noise so far can be considered truth, evidence, facts.” Let’s spot Le Batard that we have room to doubt when the key source for your investigation is doing 20 years of federal time for spinning $930 million out of bullshitting. But 11 months with thousands of documents and records, a thousand photos, dozens of witnesses, several admissions by players and previous sworn testimony is a lot of due diligence. If even half of what Yahoo! found is accurate, even a third, then Miami was an open sewer for a decade, and the Herald missed it. Le Batard may be bemoaning the fact that his work on the mid-’90s UM shenanigans didn’t have Twitter to echo through, or he may really be trying to bring expectations into line, knowing the death penalty is a remote possibility. But soft-pedaling skepticism reads like sour grapes when the Herald must be smarting that a national outlet got the scoop. Le Batard could just as well chosen the Sunday paper to tip his hat to the competition rather than to drive by and squeeze off a few rounds.
PREVIOUSLY: Down Goes the U: Yahoo Sports Drills the Miami Hurricanes
PREVIOUSLY: Nevin Shapiro’s Revelations Leave Miami Staring at Football Program’s Death
PREVIOUSLY: Surprisingly, Some People Are Doubting the Yahoo Sports Dismemberment of Miami