The 1993 college football season kicked off with a book by two journalists entitled Under the Tarnished Dome: How Notre Dame Betrayed Its Ideals for Football Glory. The Simon & Schuster book, which briefly made the best-seller lists, was anointed in such influential quarters of the news media as The New York Times and ABC’s “Nightline.” But careful examination shows that it deserved a far different kind of reception. The book provides a perfect case study of how reporters can manipulate evidence and how mere accusations can harden into media folklore as they are repeated, unchecked by other journalists.
Under the Tarnished Dome purports to be investigative journalism, and the tone of its authors, Don Yaeger and Douglas Looney, a 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, is one of high moral outrage. Their book’s premise is aptly summarized in Simon & Schuster’s breathless publicity release:
“Under the Tarnished Dome: How Notre Dame Betrayed Its Ideals for Football Glory is a jarring expose that strips the lustrous veneer off of America’s most beloved college football team. The book charges that, in its hiring of Lou Holtz to be its football coach and in its tolerance of his practices, the University of Notre Dame has punted away its ideals of academic excellence, good sportsmanship and high ethical standards.”
To sustain this quite serious charge, Yaeger and Looney claim to rely on sources whom they list at the front of the book under the heading: “Notre Dame Players in Under the Tarnished Dome.” Their prime target – 108 former and present Notre Dame players are listed – is Lou Holtz. They allege that Holtz is “a despicable human being,” who “rules by fear and intimidation.” They liken him to a steamroller, “which operates without wisdom, compassion or humanism.” They cast him as not merely a repulsive, hypocritical bully, but also as mentally unstable. “In defense of Holtz,” they write, “it could well be that living in this asylum with all these inmates has made him a little crazy. …But never forget, he hand-picked the inmates he wanted to be around him.”
The “inmates” Yaeger and Looney portray are an ugly crew of violent, stupid, drug-abusing athletes who besmirch the traditions of Notre Dame while being coddled by a hypocritical administration. “For all of Notre Dame’s palaver about there being no scuba-diving classes, no physical education majors, and no place to hide the athletes,” they write, “the no-brainer in place for the football players is American Studies.” As for the inmates’ drug abuse, Yaeger and Looney allege that steroid abuse is widespread at the school, having been encouraged by Holtz. Chapter three begins: “First Lou Holtz arrived at Notre Dame. Then a lot of steroids did. The connection is inescapable. It has also been devastating.”
Yaeger and Looney refer repeatedly to the large number of players they interviewed on the record, and they quote some 71 players in all. It is on their interviews with the players that the credibility and power of Under the Tarnished Dome hangs. Hence the long list of names at the beginning of the book.
But the list is bogus, a classic example of how journalists can stack data to achieve a desired outcome. More than 300 students have played for Notre Dame during Lou Holtz’s tenure, which began in 1986, but Tarnished Dome relies on a very small percentage of them. More than half of the 108 players on Yaeger and Looney’s list make either brief cameo appearances or are not quoted at all. The book turns out to have been built on quotes from two dozen players, most of whom were either thrown out of the university, suspended from the team, dropped out, failed out, transferred, were placed on probation, or never played for Holtz.
Consider the 13 most-quoted players in the book (all those given more than 100 lines of text), listed in order of the extent to which they are quoted:
1. Dan Quinn (suspended from the university, took steroids, accused of sexual assault, sued Notre Dame);
2. Marty Lippincott (suspended from the team, placed on academic probation three times);
3. Jim Baugus (suspended for steroid use);
4. George Marshall (suspended for drug use);
5. Linc Coleman (played only one year, dropped out of Notre Dame after academic problems);
6. Tony Smith (claimed Notre Dame caused him to lose $1 million in the NFL draft by playing injured);
7. John Foley (placed on academic probation);
8. John Askin (claims Tarnished Dome is “an outright fraud”);
9. Mike Crounse;
10. Jeff Pearson (suspended from the university, tested positive for steroids, sold steroids);
11. George Williams (suspended from the team);
12. Kurt Zackrison;
13. Mike Golic (played at Notre Dame before Holtz became coach).
And so it goes down the list – a list filled with the sound of grinding axes. The player with the greatest number of problems, Dan Quinn, is the player with the greatest number of quotes in the book. (Notre Dame refused to comment about any individual players. Their problems were revealed either in the Tarnished Dome or in Blue and Gold Illustrated, an independent sports magazine that covers Notre Dame football.)
While Yaeger and Looney stack their book with problem cases, they do not present contrary testimony. For example, they do not present the views of the leaders of the football program, the 20 team captains during the Holtz era. After hearing what several former captains have to say about the book, one can see why Yaeger and Looney chose to exclude them.
Rick Mirer, the school’s all-time passing leader and arguably the most well-known Notre Dame player from the Holtz era, is listed as one of the 108 players at the opening of the book, but Mirer told the Los Angeles Times that he was never contacted by the authors. “[Yaeger and Looney] looked for people who had a reason to be angry about whatever happened in their career there. They have no reason to talk to me.” The book, he added, is “a horrible misrepresentation of the university. If anybody knows what happened there in the last four or five years, I would definitely be one of those guys….I’m…disgusted with the things I see [in the book].” Mirer took the witness stand in defense of his former coach: “I feel badly for coach Holtz because he does so many things for the benefit of the players, to make you a better person, a better student, to make you a better athlete. It’s just not fair…the rap he’s taking.”
Andy Heck, another captain listed by the authors but never quoted by them, told Blue and Gold Illustrated: “[Yaeger] asked me, ‘Did you use steroids at Notre Dame, because some teammates are saying you did.’ I flat out told him no, and anyone who says I used them is not telling the truth….ND pioneered random drug testing in college football. I can recall three or four team meetings with Dr. James Moriarty, who pointed out the dangers of steroid use to discourage anyone from using them.” Another football captain, Ned Bolcar, told Blue and Gold: “Lou Holtz and the athletic department should be commended on the way they test. We tested way beyond what the NCAA does. I never heard Lou Holtz or anyone on his staff support steroid use.” As for the one football captain quoted extensively in the book, Mike Kovaleski, he says many of his quotes were used out of context. “In no way did he or anyone on his staff ever condone steroid use. That’s a ridiculous accusation.”
On this subject of steroid use, the authors also did not quote Barry Alvarez, head football coach of Wisconsin and a former assistant to Holtz. Alvarez told Blue and Gold that Holtz preached the need to be a “proper representative of Notre Dame. Don’t cut corners. Don’t look for loopholes. Every coach heard it, and he lived by it. Lou Holtz represented Notre Dame as well as anyone could….To claim that steroid use was condoned is an absolutely ridiculous statement. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t even want to give the accusation any credibility by responding to it.”
Notre Dame took exactly the same approach to Under the Tarnished Dome when it was published, and the authors have used this as a shield, as if the university’s hostility exculpated them from adhering to basic journalistic standards. In their book, accusations and opinions are trotted out as truth.
Take, for example, the allegation that Notre Dame football players are loaded into the American Studies program. Of the 112 players currently on the football roster, exactly two are majoring in American Studies, and the number has changed little over the years.
Or take the allegations about steroid abuse. Everyone knows it is impossible to stamp out illegal drug use on any college campus, and college football, in particular, rides the testosterone tiger. Yet Yaeger and Looney single out Notre Dame, which has the most rigorous screening program in the nation, and then claim, against all objective evidence, that the impact of steroids at Notre Dame has been “devastating.” For the record, since screening began in 1985, only five out of more than 400 Notre Dame players have tested positive, and none since 1990. Bob Minnix, director of enforcement at the NCAA, says that Notre Dame’s “drug testing standards are much tougher than ours.”
By many measures, Notre Dame has the most successful football program in the nation. Its success seems to goad Yaeger and Looney, whose prose often shifts into rhetorical overdrive – another of the book’s faults. “It is impossible,” they write, “to fathom any greater exhibition of greed or arrogance than what the University of Notre Dame perpetrated on the college football world in February 1990 when it announced, in effect, ‘We’re Notre Dame and you’re not, so screw you.”…Greed and lust can be laid unequivocally at the Irish doorstep – greed for money, lust for attention – as the motivating forces.”
For Yaeger and Looney, Notre Dame’s sin was to break with the College Football Association (CFA) and negotiate a separate $37.5 million television deal with NBC. The authors characterize the deal as “backstabbing” and “sleight-of-hand” and “indefensible.” They do no tell readers that the CFA had negotiated a contract that was constrictive for the university, which acted within its legal rights and in fulfillment of its own obligations.
Yaeger and Looney ask: “How many national championships are worth the price of one’s own soul?...The whirring sound you hear is Knute Rockne spinning in his grave.” Here the authors’ ignorance betrays them. Knute Rockne was college football’s first and greatest entrepreneur, a point vividly amplified in Professor Murray Sperber’s 600-page history of Notre Dame football, Shake Down the Thunder. Knute Rockne just might have spun in his grave if Notre Dame had not struck the deal with NBC.
Obvious flaws like this are marbled throughout Tarnished Dome. At Simon & Schuster, even the most rudimentary journalistic checks and balances appear to have no relevance. (How, one wonders, did Simon & Schuster allow Yaeger through its gate? His dubious career includes arrest for shoplifting when he worked for the San Antonio Express-News and two firings, from the The Dallas Morning News and The Florida Times-Union.) Under the Tarnished Dome was turned down by its original publisher, HarperCollins, after it saw an early draft and decided not to proceed with publication.
Unfortunately, Simon & Schuster is not the only institution exposed by Under the Tarnished Dome. The book was serialized in such newspapers as the Detroit News and the New York Post, and it won a wide and uncritical follow-up among journalists, with the biggest boost coming from ABC’s “Nightline.” According to Publisher’s Weekly, “One of the things that helped propel the book to stardom – it now has 110,000 copies in print – is that ‘Nightline’ devoted an entire show to it.”
Surprisingly, given Ted Koppel’s deserved renown for acuity and integrity, “Nightline” delivered a television replica of the book, with the same stacked deck and the same manipulated examples. The three Notre Dame players quoted on camera are among the 20 key malcontents who shaped Under the Tarnished Dome. It appears “Nightline” could not find a single Notre Dame player to offer an alternative to the Yaeger-Looney line.
Moreover, the main accusations of the book are buttressed by ABC reporter Armen Keteyian: “In their book, Under the Tarnished Dome, Looney and co-author Don Yaeger, an investigative reporter with two other books on college sports to his credit, contend Notre Dame has sold its soul for football glory.” Interviewed by Keteyian, Yaeger says, “Now, it seems, ND stands for No Different.”
ABC was hardly alone in its uncritical treatment of the book. The New York Times, in the first month after Tarnished Dome was published, ran no fewer than six negative reports on Notre Dame, five of them quoting the book: “Notre Dame Throws the Book at Michigan” (September 12), “Holtz Comes to His Defense” (September 13), “How to Make Notre Dame’s Dome Shine” (September 14), “The Notre Dame ‘Mutiny’ that Wasn’t” (September 17), “Seeing a Different Kind of Stars” (September 27) and “Push Comes to Shove, Again” (October 2). Thus the Times, the bellwether for a vast number of editors and reporters, helped embed the main accusations of Tarnished Dome into media folklore, accepting them without ever checking them.
The underlying bias evident in this case study has little to do with Notre Dame. Rather, it reveals the news media’s deep structural bias in favor of discord, and its weakness for the disenchanted.
Paul Sheehan, a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, is a contributor to The Atlantic Monthly and chief U.S. correspondent for the Australian Consolidated Press magazine group.