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Basketball by the Book: The Post Dispatch's Selective Distortion

Yesterday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch brought a front-page story by David Hunn detailing how the Missouri State High School Activities Association yanked three state basketball championships from Vashon High School.

At the very end of the 900-word piece, in boldface type, was a note:

Elizabethe Holland of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

And for the umpteenth time in the Post's coverage of the Vashon basketball story, Kristen Hinman of the Riverfront Times went uncredited.

Kristen Hinman's "Basketball by the Book" series won top accolades from the Education Writers Association and the National Association of Black Journalists.
Loyal RFT readers and others knowledgeable about high school sports in St. Louis know that it was Hinman's award-winning "Basketball by the Book" investigation that spurred MSHSAA's long-overdue probe into allegations of recruiting violations by currently imprisoned coach Floyd Irons.

The Post knows it too. But the paper's editors, presumably, don't think it's important for its readers to know it.

Yeah, I'm carping, and yeah, I've carped before.

But it galls me to see the city's newspaper of record gloss over (to put it gently) the facts of the Irons scandal.

Here's David Hunn's version of events:

The decision finalizes a 19-month investigation of Vashon and its iconic coach, Floyd Irons, and gives credence to years of speculation that Irons was improperly recruiting players....
Coaches have been suspicious of Vashon recruiting for years, some even filing complaints with the state association.

But little came of the rumors, even when Irons was removed as coach of Vashon in 2006 after an audit found mismanagement of money in the basketball program.

Then, this past September, Irons pleaded guilty to federal charges of mail and wire fraud for his part in a real estate scheme meant to kick back tens of thousands of dollars to him and basketball booster Mike Noll, according to federal prosecutors.

And as part of his plea agreement, prosecutors required him to tell the state activities association everything he knew about eligibility and recruiting violations at Vashon, on Cass Avenue in St. Louis.

He met with association officials in November and admitted renting an apartment for two Illinois students from 2002 through 2006. He brought them beds and a TV, food and clothing, and even asked a booster to clean and cook for the boys, according to a transcript of the meeting.

It's a fact that MSHSAA dragged its figurative feet, that the agency's investigation into allegations of recruiting and residency violations slogged on for more than a year and a half, and that Irons' meeting with MSHSAA officials last fall sealed the deal.

What's misleading -- and insultingly so -- is Hunn's reference to "speculation" and "rumors."

Why?

Because "Basketball by the Book" wasn't "rumors" or "speculation." All the whispered bitching by coaches and athletic directors during the years Irons built Vashon into a basketball powerhouse -- that might qualify as "rumors" or "speculation." All the scuttlebutt shared among local high school hoops mavens and sports journalists (many of whom work for the Post) -- that might qualify as "rumors" or "speculation."

"Basketball by the Book," on the other hand, was the product of three months' of hard-core investigative reporting undertaken by Kristen Hinman.

To add injury to insult, in the immediate aftermath of our story MSHSAA executive director Kerwin Urhahn issued a written statement that described the incontrovertible facts Hinman had unearthed as -- you guessed it -- "rumor":

"Any program with a history of success ultimately faces greater public scrutiny. The recent coaching and administrative transitions at Vashon have emboldened some to draw their own conclusions and publish innuendos and rumors as facts about school personnel and even students.
Vashon High School, like all MSHSAA member schools, has the obligation to enforce the eligibility standards put in place by the schools themselves and report any violations of those standards. Likewise, this organization relies heavily on the integrity of its members to report violations when they occur and to report suspected violations at other schools. No complaint has been filed against Vashon since 2002, and it is currently in good standing with the MSHSAA.

If Urhahn hadn't received any complaints against Vashon in the previous four years, he was about to get one. Here's the tune the MSHSAA chief sang only a few months later, in response to a formal grievance filed by officials at Kearney High School in Liberty:

Dear Mr. Rinne:
I am writing in regard to the letter I received from you on December 4, 2006, concerning the Riverfront Times Article addressing issues surrounding Vashon High School. In your letter you raised the issues about the players you competed against in the finals of the Class 4 Basketball Championships in 2004. The documentation that you provided to our office, the athletes that you listed were on the Vashon eligibility rosters the preceding year. Therefore, they would have established their eligibility the previous year and would have been eligible at the varsity at the time they competed against your team. However, our office is looking into the allegations made in the Riverfront Times article addressing the Vashon High School boy's basketball team. If you have any additional firsthand information about the Vashon issue, then I would be very appreciative to receive such.

I understand the frustration with reading the article, but I know there are two sides to every story. I have to provide the member school with the opportunity to present their side. I want to reassure you that our office is taking the allegations very seriously and will take the appropriate actions should any violations be found.

Right-click here to download a pdf copy of the Urhahn letter.

This, of course, isn't the first time I've called out Hunn and the Post for selective distortion concerning the Irons case. I vented (admittedly in a more concise fashion) in a pair of posts back in February.

By the same token, Hunn and the Post have ignored Hinman's reporting time and time again. A quick Nexis search for "Vashon" and "rumor" over the past two years turns up the following examples, in addition to the one published yesterday:

April 5, 2008 (byline: Lee Logan and David Hunn: [L]ittle came of long-standing recruiting rumors until this September, when Irons pleaded guilty to federal charges of mail and wire fraud in a real estate scheme meant to kick back thousands of dollars to him and basketball booster Mike Noll, federal prosecutors said.

As part of his plea agreement, Irons was required to tell the state association everything he knew about eligibility and recruiting violations at Vashon.

March 25, 2008 (byline: David Hunn): This fall, Irons - long the subject of illegal recruiting rumors - admitted to luring two students from Alton High School. The state association is now investigating at least 15 former Vashon players for eligibility violations. Irons stands to lose five state titles.

February 24, 2008 (byline: David Hunn, with contributing reporters Christine Byers and Elizabethe Holland): Irons admits in the transcript that he rented an apartment for the Hills from 2002 through 2006. He says he bought them beds and a TV, food and clothing, and had even asked a former Vashon student to clean and cook for the boys.

Despite years of rumors and accusations, it was the first public admission of recruiting violations at Vashon. Yet Oakes said Friday that there's little she could have done in 2002.

Hunn's story yesterday did contain one invisible tip of the cap to Kristen Hinman. It's the first sentence I quoted at the top of this rant:

"The decision finalizes a 19-month investigation of Vashon and its iconic coach, Floyd Irons, and gives credence to years of speculation that Irons was improperly recruiting players."

Counting backward nineteen months from June 2008 brings you to...November of 2006.

The publication date of Kristen Hinman's "Basketball by the Book" exposé: November 2, 2006.

-Tom Finkel


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