Reporter’s notebook: An inside look at how Sports Illustrated got hold of USF

Because of their thorough approach, SI reporters Priya Desai and Jenny Vratas decided not to publicize their story in January 2021 after the Hulst & Handler report was released. SCREENSHOT/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

The USF community woke up Sept. 30 to disturbing details from a devastating Sports Illustrated (SI) report detailing years of alleged sexual misconduct by the University’s men’s soccer team spanning two decades. The nearly 8,000-word article was another inflection point in what has already been a turbulent year and a half for the University’s leadership, athletics department, and student body. The investigation by SI reporters Priya Desai and Jenny Vrentas took 16 months to complete. Since publication, it has caused more demands for campus action and a reflection on the University’s values. 

Last summer, Desai was contacted by the sister of a former USF student, regarding a possible story on the toxic environment that engulfed the University’s men’s soccer team. Desai said that the woman’s account sounded familiar to a tweet she saw earlier that day from another individual. The following day, a petition was made by a USF alum, calling for University action in response to the team’s misconduct. Intrigued by the social media firestorm, Desai contacted the petition’s author, 2019 graduate Will Midence, and shared her contact information with Midence and other survivors if they were willing to tell their experiences. 

“There was an immediate response,” said Desai. “It wasn’t that survivors were trickling in, off the bat I heard from five women.” After former USF soccer player, Manny Padilla was initially suspended and then released from his former team July 25, Desai received more responses from survivors as well as supporting testimonies. Sensing the magnitude of the story, Desai contacted fellow SI reporter Jenny Vrentas as the latter had done prior reporting on the same subject. 

“Because of the scope and breadth of the allegations, it was really jarring,” said Vrentas when asked what urged her to join her colleague. She added that there needed to be a more in-depth understanding of the allegations and their prevalence, given the unique smaller size of USF compared to other schools that had similar scandals tied to larger athletic programs. “We’ve heard this happen at Baylor or LSU, but now it’s happening at a relatively small school and not a football program. It’s maybe not where you would expect it,” said Vrentas. 

Last spring, Vrentas wrote a story detailing accounts of alleged unwanted sexual advances by NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson towards massage therapists. Another investigative piece looked into the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and the team’s involvement in giving extensive public relations assistance to the Archdiocese of New Orleans and its subsequent coverup of sexual abuse by its clergy. 

Vrentas clarified that Desai was the lead investigator for this issue as she mostly focused on recovering court records and police reports from cases related to the allegations and comments made by members of the USF community. Initially, Vrentas was worried that the pandemic would make it difficult for them to receive court documents, but it was not a major problem. 

Desai had communicated with “at least a dozen” survivors, but the five women who shared their experiences of alleged abuse “were the ones that I had a consistent long-term rapport with and the ones where we were able to speak with witnesses, friends, family, and documentation as their stories were unfolded.” 

As a professional reporter, Desai had never worked on a story for 16 months. Although it did take nearly a year and a half to publish, both Desai and Vrentas said the story required a rigorous and meticulous approach. “We built a relationship with all these women and that made the biggest difference,” said Desai. She added, “to be able to really talk about trauma, it takes months and months of trust between us and them.” 

For Desai, conversing with the survivors was “on a personal level, a lot to take in.” Each time that she spoke to one of the survivors, they would ask how she was doing, given the gravity of the stories. 

Both revealed that part of their investigation could have been published before the Hulst and Handler report came out back in January, but it was not justified to do so even if another outlet had picked up on it because “it’s about being as thorough as possible,” said Desai. Additionally, both women worked on other stories outside of this subject.

Vrentas said, “You are putting forth an account rooted in facts and that’s why it takes a long time for stories like this to publish.” Both reporters emphasized the importance of following the survivor’s accounts with corroborations from others, physical evidence, University reaction, and comments from the accused. “The Hulst & Handler report referred to a lot of rumors going around the school but when we publish the story, we say we vetted these, and we’re letting you know as we share these accounts how we vetted them.” 

In reaching out to the University’s current administrators, Desai said that “no one chose to speak with us one-on-one.” However, the University responded to the reporters’ list of questions through Kellie Samson, the office of marketing and communications head of media relations. In a statement to the Foghorn, Samson said, “They sent over more than 40 detailed questions that I then shared with USF administrators (Student Life, Title IX, athletics, etc.) who provided responses in writing.” Samson added, “Due to the extent of the questions USF was asked, we expected the article to be lengthy and detailed, and to receive much attention.” 

The University’s response has garnered some criticism. Drawing from her previous reporting, Vrentas said independent investigations commissioned by institutions that are under fire can be problematic. “Obviously if an investigation needs to be done, someone needs to fund that investigation but is the result actually independent, or is it being used to say we’ve gotten to this step and thus we can move forward,” she said. For many of the former and current students that both Desai and Vrentas talked to, the Hulst & Handler findings were an issue. 

One of the sources Desai spoke with was Caroline Christ, a USF alum and one of the organizers of the advocacy group, It’s on USFCA. Christ said that they had redirected some of the survivors they had contacted to the SI reporters. “We began asking these survivors, ‘Do you want to tell your story on a bigger scale or at least talk to these folks that are doing this investigative report?’” She contended that because survivors were comfortable enough to share their experiences with either their group or Desai and Vrentas, it symbolized the relationship between them and the University. 

Christ commended SI and its reporters for providing a platform for survivors even though the process took an extended period of time. “I think the end result and the most powerful part of this article is that it was done so intentionally to give survivors the space to share their stories,” said Christ. She added that timing could not have been better as most students have returned to campus and subsequently student support has grown for their group. 

Desai and Vrentas said that the reaction has been strong since it was published. “We received a number of messages from people we had spoken with and those we didn’t,” said Vrentas. She explained this response comes from the fact that “it resonated with a lot of people in the USF community because it was something they had recognized or maybe tried to bring awareness to but felt like no one would listen to them.” 

Desai said at times could not help but wonder what would have happened if students or alumni hadn’t posted stories of abuse on social media. From Desai’s perspective, the question still left unanswered is “what constitutes a pervasive problem or culture?” Ultimately, Desai’s main takeaway from this story is that “journalism is important to our society and democracy” because issues like sexual violence and abusive behavior remain prevalent today. 

The Foghorn will continue its coverage on the issues raised by Sports Illustrated’s article and anything related to this subject in the coming weeks. 

Reach out to tips@sffoghorn.com or our news editor at marcayena@sffoghorn.com.

Miguel Arcayena is a senior politics major and the Foghorn’s news editor. He covers COVID-19-related campus news and administrative issues. He can be reached at marcayena@sffoghorn.com.

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