Seattle Times Executive Editor David Boardman answers readers' questions on series
Q: How did this series get started? A: The story was rooted in an investigation we did in 2006, titled "Your Courts, Their Secrets. " In reporting that...
Q: How did this series get started?
A: The story was rooted in an investigation we did in 2006, titled "Your Courts, Their Secrets." In reporting that series, we filed 40 lawsuits to unseal cases that had been improperly made secret by King County Superior Court judges. We won 37 of those suits. The cases we opened to the public ran the gamut, from a case of a 13-year-old girl who had been raped while in the state's care, to school principals who had ignored a teacher's molestation of students, to a medical-malpractice suit that had cost the University of Washington more than $3 million.
One of the lead reporters on that series was Ken Armstrong. From his work on the "Your Courts" series, Armstrong learned that when public institutions around here are sued, the results are too often kept secret. He became interested in particular in the settlement of a suit against the UW by a female student who claimed to be a rape victim of then-Husky tight end Jerramy Stevens. Although Stevens had never been charged in the case, the woman had received a settlement payment after suing Stevens and the UW, and Armstrong wanted to know more about it.
He filed a public-record request and got the case file. It contained not only the amount of the settlement to the woman — $300,000 — but also provided plenty of reason to look more closely at the case of Stevens, who by then was a member of the Seattle Seahawks.
Not incidentally, the suit was accompanied by three other sexual-assault lawsuits against former UW football players. Those suits alleged that the UW Athletic Department had created an environment in which violence against women was tolerated.
Armstrong had also come upon a sealed case involving one of Stevens' Husky teammates, linebacker Jeremiah Pharms. Given all of this, we decided to look more closely at the entire roster from that Rose Bowl team.
We were surprised by what we found — at least two dozen players who had been in trouble with the law, some repeatedly and for serious, violent crimes. From there, we decided to look closely at how the university handled player-misconduct issues under Coach Rick Neuheisel and Athletic Director Barbara Hedges.
Q: But why did you publish this now, so long after the events occurred?
A: All during the months of reporting, we were uncertain exactly where the facts would lead us and whether there would in fact be compelling reasons to tell this story today, given the time that had passed. As we always do with controversial stories, we asked ourselves: What good will it do? Will it serve an important journalistic purpose?
As the 2007 football season progressed, those answers became more clear. With each Husky loss, calls for the ouster of Athletic Director Todd Turner and Coach Tyrone Willingham — both hired by President Mark Emmert to restore integrity to a program that had been left in ashes by Neuheisel and Hedges — grew louder. In December, Turner was fired, and he posed the question: Is winning the only thing that matters?
In the aftermath of that firing, we acquired public records of e-mails from football fans to Emmert demanding a winning team and the firing of Turner and Willingham, including one in which a former mayor of Everett offered $200,000 in donations to the UW law school in exchange for getting rid of the two men.
The UW football program was clearly at a crossroads, one in which values were coming into conflict. We wrestled intensely with airing unsavory details from seven years ago. But we ultimately concluded that a better understanding of the past would help inform the future.
Besides, this was a story not only about the problems under Neuheisel and Hedges, but about the institutions that tolerated those problems — the university, the courts, the King County Prosecutor's Office and the media, including our own newspaper.
We asked ourselves: If a community never explores problems in its past, how does it move beyond them? We knew this series could spark a communitywide conversation on such topics as the value of college sports, the place of sports in higher education and the media, the special treatment afforded gifted athletes in our culture, the treatment of women on college campuses, and so on. And it certainly has.
Q: But couldn't you have reported all of this back when it happened?
A: Much of the information in this series is from criminal- and civil-court records that were unavailable to the press and public at the time they were being adjudicated. It was only after investigations were completed and lawsuits settled years later that all the information became available. Even then, it was acquired only through filing 91 public-disclosure requests to more than 27 public agencies.
The key point in the project's evolution was getting the police and prosecution files in the Stevens rape investigation. These files revealed the clash between police and prosecutors, in particular the accommodations prosecutors were willing to make for Stevens and the strength of the case against him.
The records also laid out clearly the extent to which Stevens was given chance after chance, break after break, because he was skilled at catching a football.
That's not to say that we and others could not have done a better job of reporting back then, both on individual cases involving UW players and on the lack of accountability under Neuheisel and Hedges. That's why we included the media under the institutions that helped allow this behavior to occur.
Q: Wasn't this all old stuff everyone knew?
A: While some of the facts about the conduct of Stevens and Pharms were reported at the time, most were not. These stories provide much more detail of those cases, including how the coaches, administrators and legal system responded to the players' conduct.
Almost all of the information about Curtis Williams' off-the-field conduct and legal problems was new.
Q: What was some of the new material?
A: In the Stevens story, some of the most important new material included:
• The prosecutors' letter in which they declined to prosecute Stevens for rape but stated that it was "highly unlikely" the accuser would have consented to what had happened.
• The clash between Seattle police and prosecutors, especially new material from lead detective Maryann Parker. Among that material was the revelation that prosecutors offered to allow Stevens to see the sworn statements of the victim and a witness before being questioned. A police legal adviser said he'd never seen that done in his 30 years on the job.
• The outcome of the civil lawsuit against Stevens and the UW, and the heavy-handed manner in which the school litigated it, including trying to "out" the victim by name.
• Attorney Mike Hunsinger's representation of 14 Husky players, almost all in criminal cases.
• The complete criminal history of Stevens.
In the Pharms story, some of the new material included:
• Most of the details about the investigation of the armed-robbery and shooting case in which Pharms was ultimately convicted — including why the case took so long to prosecute.
• The revelation that law-enforcement authorities felt they needed to build an extraordinarily bulletproof case against Pharms because of how the Stevens case had been handled, and their concerns about jurors' sympathy toward athletes.
• Details about which people on and around the Husky team knew about the robbery and the investigation during the season.
• The existence of a judicial inquiry in which another player was questioned about Pharms.
• An unsent letter from prosecutors angered over what they saw as an outrageous defense of Pharms by a newspaper sportswriter.
• New and current felony firearms charges pending against Pharms today.
And again, almost all of the material on Williams was new.
Q: Why did you even have to include Curtis Williams? Couldn't you let him rest in peace?
A: We struggled mightily with that matter. Williams died a tragic death that affected the entire community, and we hesitated to cause additional pain. But the story about how his coaches and community institutions handled his criminal problems was one we felt needed to be told. His story, as much as any other, reflected the program's issues in dealing with off-the-field violence.
When Williams stepped onto the field in front of 70,000 people to open that season, a warrant was out for his arrest. He had been arrested every year he was on the team. Probation officers and social workers say their concerns about him, and for the safety of his battered wife, were not taken seriously. Even at the time of his on-the-field injury, he was not meeting his court-ordered obligations for treatment, was missing court hearings and continued to demonstrate clear disregard for the legal system.
Notably, even Curtis Williams' brother, David, has come out in support of the lessons to be learned from his brother's tragic story.
Q: And how about Norm Maleng, the late King County prosecutor?
A: He was a widely respected prosecutor and a beloved member of the community. But to tell the story of how institutions and the legal system dealt with the off-the-field problems of the Huskies, we could not ignore the actions of the Prosecutor's Office.
Q: Was this series timed to hurt UW football recruiting? Letter-of-intent day, on which high-school players announce their intention to commit to a school, is Feb. 6. Or perhaps it was timed to hurt the effort to get state funding to help renovate Husky Stadium?
A: Neither. We publish stories when they are ready, with some consideration of outside factors. This one was timed to the conclusion of football season, the departure of Turner and the search for his replacement, and the debate surrounding Willingham's future. When we established the Jan. 27 target publication date late last year, the Seahawks were still in the NFL playoffs and potentially in the Super Bowl, so we wanted to avoid clashing with that.
We did not intend to impact UW recruiting one way or another, though in retrospect the story seems more likely to hurt recruiting by UCLA, where Neuheisel is the new coach, than it does at Montlake.
As for the stadium-renovation funding effort, it had not even been announced when we set the publication date, and the prospects for its success had clearly dimmed in the week before publication, when House Speaker Frank Chopp all but declared the proposal dead.
We also know that no time would seem right to the most passionate Husky fans.
Q: I heard on the radio that one of your reporters lied to former UW players to get an interview.
A: That's not true. Nick Perry, our higher-education reporter, was the second reporter on the series. At the time he was brought into the reporting last summer, the focus of the story was still being shaped. Nick's initial assignment was to explore the overall culture and discipline of the Neuheisel teams and to look into how players from that team had fared after leaving the UW.
When he interviewed Kyle Benn and Chad Ward, he asked them about such broader issues. He also did question them about Stevens and Pharms. Benn and Ward were minor sources for the story.
It is understandable that they were surprised to see the ultimate focus of the story. Perry never lied nor meant to mislead them and has since contacted them to express his concern that they felt misled.
Q: Sure, there were some bad apples on that team. But why did you focus on them instead of all the good guys?
A: The ultimate focus of this story was not to broadly profile the Rose Bowl team. It was to look deeply at the problems that existed with some of the players, at how the coaches and administrators enabled and tolerated criminal conduct, and to explore the issues of off-the-field behavior and on-the-field performance. A dozen players were arrested that year or charged with a crime that carried possible jail time, and another dozen from that 2000 team got in trouble with the law in other seasons.
That said, one of our stories did focus on a "good guy," who achieved remarkable success despite formidable odds: Anthony Kelley, a linebacker who pushed back against a Husky culture that emphasized eligibility on the field, not education in the classroom.
Q: What do you and your staff have against the University of Washington?
A: Nothing at all! I have a graduate degree from the U-Dub, and many others here are Huskies who have great affection and regard for the school. We see it as one of the most important coverage areas for us, and we publish all sorts of articles about it every week, on topics that range from research on autism to the return of Ryan Appleby to the basketball court.
Certainly, though, we feel it is our responsibility to shine a light on all aspects of our key institutions, even when what we find might be painful to some of our readers.
As a journalist and a sports fan, I hope — and believe — that this series will help the school and the team move forward on achieving the goal that President Emmert expressed in the final installment of the series: "You can win, and you can win properly."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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