Michigan Radio, USA TODAY earn Award for Excellence in Coverage of Youth Sports

March 04, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Two ambitious, in-depth pieces of journalism that focused on the abuse of female athletes at the youth, intercollegiate and Olympic levels of sports — reports that led to a better understanding of how such abuse happens and prompted change — have earned the Award for Excellence in Coverage of Youth Sports.

Because of their impact and scope on similar topics, Michigan Radio and USA TODAY Sports each were selected as recipients of the annual award facilitated by the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. 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 17 during a special event on the University Park campus.

“There are few things journalists can do that are more noble than protecting the innocent,” said John Affleck, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society and director of the Curley Center. “Both of the series we are honoring this year do that in a powerful and effective manner.”

Michigan Radio crafted a nine-part podcast series, titled “Believed,” that focused on Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State and USA Gymnastics doctor who was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison in January 2018 for molesting girls while supposedly providing medical treatment. The series specifically focused on how he was able to abuse hundreds of girls and women for more than two decades.

After two years covering the story and subsequent sentencing, reporters Kate Wells and Lindsey Smith led a deeper exploration of Nassar’s approach and methods. The reporters built trust with survivors, conducted interviews and examined an abundance of primary source material, often as the result of public records requests.

The station-produced series, which was distributed nationally by NPR, provided answers to the “how” question, along with compelling context and depth. All episodes and supplemental material about “Believed” can be found online.

While Nassar’s conviction caused ramifications and prompted harsher scrutiny of intercollegiate and Olympic sports, USA TODAY focused on whether the U.S. Olympic Committee, the national governing bodies for individual sports, and the U.S. Center for SafeSport were equipped to prevent such abuses in the future.

Building on the reporting and investigations that Nancy Armour and Rachel Axon did into USA Taekwondo in 2017, they sought to find coaches in the Olympic movement who had been banned for sexual misconduct yet continued to coach. Starting with more than 450 names on publicly available banned lists, they searched for signs that an individual continued to coach and information about the misconduct that had led to his or her ban.

They narrowed their list to nearly five dozen. Alongside Brent Schrotenboer, they sought to do further reporting to confirm those cases. Ultimately, their investigation found six instances that served to highlight flaws in the system that failed to keep banned coaches out of Olympic sports.

To further illustrate those found shortcomings and the hodgepodge of policies across the movement related to removing predator coaches and enforcing bans, they surveyed 49 national governing bodies. What they reportedly found was an inconsistent approach to collecting and publishing information about banned individuals, and a virtual lack of enforcement across the Olympic movement.

Their initial investigation was published on Dec. 13. It included graphics to display the survey data, a video documentary on one of the banned coaches, a look at possible solutions to the problem and a how-to guide to help parents and others find out if a coach has been banned.

Following the publication of the story, the U.S. Center for SafeSport suspended a taekwondo coach and gym owner who allegedly helped her husband avoid his ban while USA Taekwondo suspended his son. A House Energy & Commerce report obtained first by USA TODAY also found similar shortcomings as the investigation into banned coaches. And the state of Oklahoma’s tourism department removed promotional materials for a farm owned by a banned equestrian coach in the story. Work from USA TODAY’s banned coaches project may be found online as well. 

A series of youth sports stories by Joe Drape of The New York Times earned an honorable mention for the award. Specifically, Drape focused on the growth of flag football in the South, the economic impact of travel teams, and escalating fees of youth sports and the related socioeconomic divide.

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 05, 2019