Ever since last Nov. 12, when he broke the story of the SMU football team's latest, and ultimately fatal, cheating scandal, wisecracking Dallas sportscaster Dale Hansen has been a pariah in Big D.
Letter writers have called Hanson an egomaniacal glory hound and an ambush artist. A few called for his ouster from WFAA-TV, and a former friend threatened to see to it that he was run out of town.
Although their reporting techniques are open to some criticism, Hansen and his producer. John Sparks, generally deserve credit, not condemnation. Serious sports journalism is almost nonexistent on local television: that Channel 8 (an ABC affiliate) should practice it in a company town like Dallas where SMU grads dominate the power structure is semi-remarkable Advertising and lone-term ratings were at stake to say nothing of Hansen's career.
In June 1986 Sparks received a tip from inside the SMU athletic department that led him to former Mustang linebacker David Stanley. Over the next few months Stanley gave sometimes conflicting accounts to Channel 8 and the NCAA, which began its investigation into SMU in October as a result of his revelations. He told WFAA that SMU athletic officials paid him $750 a month beginning in 1983 and that the payments continued after August 1985, when the NCAA placed SMU on three-year probation. The latter assertion if proved could—and did—result in SMU receiving the death penalty.
After taping Stanley's account, Hansen arranged an interview with SMU athletic director Bob Hitch, coach Bobby Collins and recruiting coordinator Henry Lee Parker, during which he confronted them with evidence: envelopes to Stanley's family apparently initialed by Parker and postmarked in October 1985. The three officials hemmed and hawed, squirmed and unconvincingly denied everything. The interviews with Stanley and the SMU officials were aired on a 40-minute special report.
Hansen, a 38-year-old native of Logan, Iowa, used to have a reputation as a TV goofball. At KDFW in Dallas he once delivered a sportscast wearing an Arkansas Razorback hog snout and glasses. But with a 1985 report on alleged Texas A & M recruiting violations involving Aggie quarterback Kevin Murray ("I got death threats (or that one") he became a journalist Sparks came over from the news side last summer to do the legwork.
For all their courage, Hansen and Sparks can be faulted on a couple of points. First, they deceived Hitch & (o. by luring them to the interview under the guise of asking questions about SMU's appeal of NCAA-imposed scholarship limits. "'We were entrapped." Parker says. Hansen argues that he warned the officials at the studio that the questioning would be hard, and, he says, they could have left at any time. "You could feel the chill hit the room as soon as I started the questions," he says of the interview. "It wasn't exactly Mike Wallace, but parts of it were close."
Second, Channel 8 resorted to a smidgen of sensationalism. The story merited a lead news item, certainly. But a knock-'em-dead special report when all they had was the word of a kid who had a grudge against SMU—he was unhappy he wasn't starting—and who confided to the WFAA team that he had initially lied to the NCAA?
It also seemed curious that Channel 8 waited until the crucial ratings sweeps month of November to air the story. Did they hold it for a big pop? General manager David Lane says it took that long for WFAA to investigate Stanley's charges by submitting the incriminating envelopes to a handwriting expert and having Stanley lake a lie-detector test.
Still, the station was vindicated. And in a town where criticizing SMU is done at ones peril, it had acted courageously. The Dallas Times Herald has yet to fully recover from the advertising losses it suffered when it broke a 1983 story that led to SMU's previous probation.
So why risk it?
Because otherwise. Hansen says, the wrong message would go out. "We have made cheating acceptable in this society," he says. "We are telling kids that we cheat for our team, we select which rules to follow and which to break, and then we have the gall to ask these same kids how they can possibly break the rules we expect and warn them to live by."
Stanley provided TV with a scoop.
Sparks and Hansen: not the toast of the town.