Award honors series about high school basketball, human trafficking

March 21, 2018

A series of articles over a nine-month period uncovered an international human trafficking network that directed teenage boys and girls basketball players to public high schools in New Jersey, and ultimately led to state and federal investigations as well as unprecedented penalties with several coaches and school employees losing their jobs.

As a result, the impactful and important investigative series -- driven by reporters Matthew Stanmyre and Steve Politi and photographer Andrew Mills of NJ Advance Media, with articles appearing online at NJ.com and in The Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey -- earned the Award for Excellence in Coverage of Youth Sports from the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.

SERIES: Paterson Eastside

This is the second consecutive year Stanmyre’s work at NJ Advance Media has been part of a winning entry for the award focused on high school sports that drew entries from media outlets across the country.

Five in-depth articles that appeared over nine-month period revealed how promises to talented basketball players from Africa, Puerto Rico and South Africa were broken, and how they then dealt with a lack of clothing and food, sometimes relying on local churches for meals. In addition, players slept on dirty laundry with no heat and a girl from South America was denied basic hygiene products.

“Absent the effort, more foreign players would be churning through the pipeline right now,” said Kevin Whitmer, vice president of content for NJ Advance Media, who submitted the company’s award entry. “The entire story put the high school basketball world on notice and changed the landscape forever. Coaches with 20 and 30 years of experience were startled that the win-at-any-cost mentality that consumes their profession would reach this point.”

Simple curiosity and persistence drove much of the work by Politi and Stanmyre on the series. After pre-dawn stakeouts to help determine where players were living, they then dealt with uncooperative school officials who denied access to public documents and worked to prevent the stories from being discovered. The reporters continued their work in unfriendly gyms where coaches cursed them and threatened violence.

For the judges who reviewed finalists for the award, the work of NJ Advance Media stood out.

“It was excellent investigative reporting, and the impact was clear,” said Jim Buzinski of Outsports.

Likewise, ESPN’s Emily Kaplan cited the “dogged reporting” and ultimate “cause and effect” of the work.

Matt Fortuna of The Athletic agreed. “When you look at an award like this, especially as it relates to youth sports, it’s just old school, local, boots-on-the-ground reporting,” he said. “It’s a tremendous example of how in a huge region, despite some limitations, an organization can go out and do great work.”

The Award for Excellence in Coverage of Youth Sports — established in 2009 to honor creative, in-depth and innovative coverage of youth and high school sports by broadcast, print and online journalists — will be presented April 23 during a regional meeting of the Associated Press Sports Editors at Penn State.

The John Curley Center for Sports Journalism was established in 2003 as a first-of-its-kind endeavor in higher education. The Curley Center explores issues and trends in sports journalism through instruction, outreach, programming and research. 

Last Updated March 22, 2018