The 15th annual J.C. Penney-Missouri Journalism Awards were presented last week, and for the fourth time in five years SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was a major winner. Special Contributor Bil Gilbert won Penney awards for 1976, '77 and '78, and the article judged best for 1980 in the consumerism category was Senior Writer John Underwood's The Writing Is on the Wall (May 19). It dealt with what Underwood terms "the shame of the education of college athletes, the growing practice of allowing them to become total mercenaries, of getting them through the educational process without an education."
This wasn't the only investigative assignment that Underwood has carried out for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. At the 1968 Summer Olympics he watched "a lot of money being passed under the table to athletes," and seven months later an Underwood exposè, No Goody Two-Shoes (March 10, 1969), revealed that two athletic shoe companies were making a shambles of the amateur code. In 1971 chance conversations led to many months of interviews and another exposè, Look What Louie Wrought, with Morton Sharnik (May 29, 1972), this one on the connections between organized crime and a sports concessions empire. In 1978 came Underwood's three-part series on brutality in football, which later appeared, in expanded form, as his fifth book, The Death of an American Game.
Early in 1979 Underwood's misgivings about the education athletes were getting, sharpened by a California incident, prompted Senior Editor Bob Brown to assign him to the story. (In January a suit had been filed against California State University at Los Angeles by seven former basketball players who charged that they had not only been discouraged from taking real courses, but also, according to their lawyer, had been denied reasonable access to university services).
To augment Underwood's research, Brown called on 56 SI correspondents around the country to document educational practices in their areas. Some found schools doing the best they could. Others found places ready to burst with scandal. Where the correspondents' preliminary reports had indicated a need for deeper digging, Brown, Underwood and three reporters—Rose Mary Mechem, Brooks Clark and Jane Bach-man—dug deeper.
The raw material in hand, Underwood and Mechem sorted, judged, verified and reverified the facts, traveling thousands of miles to get on-the-spot data, even as the scandals of 1979—e.g., the altered transcript at New Mexico, a phantom course for athletes at USC—were erupting.
The Underwood story ran as a single article of some 15,500 words—one of the longest ever published in SI—and, as we thought at the time and the Penney judges have now confirmed, one of the most significant.
UNDERWOOD: A PENNEY FOR HIS THOUGHT