ESPN producer Dwayne Bray couldn’t predict Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice might lose his job when someone first handed him a DVD with footage of Rice flinging basketballs at his players and shouting gay slurs.
But Bray, the senior coordinating producer for the show Outside the Lines and ESPN’s enterprise unit, knew instantly this wasn’t going to be a typical story.
“One of the things we realized right away, we needed to get this story out and we needed to be comprehensive,” Bray said Wednesday. “We ran a piece on charities over the weekend; that story took us eight months to report. We realized right away, this is not going to be an eight month or an eight week deal, maybe not even an eight-day deal.”
As head of ESPN’s investigations for television, he called his counterpart Christopher Buckle at ESPN.com, a former colleague from the Dallas Morning News. Before long, they had assigned three producers, two reporters, three or four managers and a crowd of production assistants and video editors to work on what would become one of the biggest sports stories of the year.
The team essentially compressed a weeks-long reporting process into days, well aware that the school might hamper their work if word leaked too soon.
Bray got word of a tip on Rice’s behavior last Thursday, along with a DVD. By the following Tuesday, ESPN’s teams had sorted through 300 DVDs of Rutgers’ practices and assembled a report which aired that day on the coach’s behavior.
The video prompted criticism from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Miami Heat star LeBron James. On Wednesday, Rice was fired.
“I personally took 50 to 75 (DVDs) home with me and looked at them overnight…we had production assistants (and) coordinating producers doing the same thing,” said Bray, declining to identify who provided the tip or where ESPN obtained all the DVDs they reviewed.
(The sports blog Deadspin reported that Rutgers’ former director of player development Eric Murdock, who has alleged his contract wasn’t renewed by Rutgers after he told officials about Rice’s abusive outbursts, provided ESPN with a video more than 30 minutes long. Bray says they requested an interview with Murdock the day after they got the tip and DVD).
Bray added that watching all the videos available was key to learning the full scope of the story. “We didn’t just want to go on the video that (Rutgers athletic director) Tim Pernetti showed reporters in New Jersey,” he said. “Or the video that Tim Pernetti and the Rutgers administrators saw, apparently last December. We wanted to put everything in context.”
It also seemed that Rutgers forced ESPN’s hand a bit, showing video of Rice at practice to local reporters on Tuesday, prompting the channel to air its story that day.
But Bray said Outside the Lines had always hoped to air a story Wednesday or today anyway, requesting interviews with Rice and Pernetti on Monday.
“Above all else, we want to be fair and we want to have some balance,” he added. “We requested interviews on Monday and we hadn’t heard back by Tuesday morning; we were prepared, we already were in the edit room (then)…And the video speaks for itself.”
For Bray, after sorting through all the DVD material, the most important move was the “get someone in the chair”; obtaining an interview with someone close to the story before those involved could react.
That’s why ESPN scheduled an interview with Murdock on Saturday, getting him in the chair to talk before approaching athletes from the program, whom they assumed would alert the school officials.
“Our experience is, when you start reaching out to people before you get (someone) in the TV chair, they have a way of calling sources and dissuading them from doing the interview,” he said, “While John Barr was interviewing Eric Murdock in New Jersey, once he gave us the okay that he was in the chair, then we had other reporters and producers start reaching out to former players. We were going to reach out to Rutgers on Monday, but obviously once we started reaching out to current players, they started telling the school that ESPN is contacting us.
Back in December, the Newark Star-Ledger newspaper reported on Rutgers’ decision to suspend Rice without pay for three games and fine him $50,000 for his behavior at practices.
The newspaper wrote the suspension “followed an internal investigation that revealed abusive, profane language used by Rice toward his players and an incident during his first or second season in which Rice threw basketballs at some players’ heads during practice.
Critics have since characterized that suspension and fine as an attempt by the school to minimize Rice’s actions and avoid having to fire him.
ESPN’s story revealed Rice’s habit of throwing basketballs at his players reached far beyond one incident. Is this evidence that journalists should have pushed harder for details when the suspension was first announced?
“Stories kinda evolve on their own timeline,” Bray said. “We talked about the story in December, but didn’t have any solid information.”
Important as they all knew the story was – and a great piece of journalism from a channel often criticized for its mistakes — Bray said some at ESPN disagreed on whether the public would perceive Rice’s actions as excessive.
On the tapes he reviewed, Bray said “about two percent” of every practice featured an outburst from Rice similar to the actions shown on their broadcasts, adding “this was just part of this guy’s character.”
“As we were working on this story, we had some heated debates on how this would resonate,” he added. “People said ‘Hey basketball coaches are tough, I don’t think the public is going to find this offensive.’ Others felt otherwise. The one thing we agreed on, was that the gay slurs would be a hot button issue. And that’s turned out to be true.”
Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.
Check out Deggans’ latest book, Race-Baiter, How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, and you can also visit his website for more information.