What kind of mindset leads a popular TV sports anchor and radio talk-show host into getting embroiled in a multimillion-dollar mortgage-fraud scheme, perhaps even jeopardizing a 20-year broadcasting career?
Look to the KUTV 2 Website for some insight. There, you can click on the chirpy biography of sports anchor Dave Fox, who pleaded guilty Sept. 25 in Utah County’s 4th District Court with another man, Mark Atkins, to a charge of communications fraud in an apparent real-estate-investment scam involving “flipping” houses for profit.
On the Website, Fox is asked to complete the thought “Why I’m a journalist.” His answer: “I’m not. I’m a sports reporter!”
True enough. In the journalism world, a timeless theory has held that news reporters must hold to a higher ethical standard than the rest of the organization. Sports reporters, on the other hand, have historically been perceived as entertainers, team boosters and, yes, washed-up jocks.
All of which could help explain the 48-year-old Fox’s slide. The general public might not see a direct correlation between a sports reporter taking free meals or game tickets from a team he covers and eventual involvement in mortgage fraud. But the argument goes like this: If the ethical lines that govern a major part of your life are blurry from the get-go, how easy does it become to dip into white-collar crime?
“Well, absolutely, if you develop a habit of smoothing your way through life in your job, I can see it happening in other areas,” says Michael Lewis, who covers University of Utah basketball and Real Salt Lake soccer for The Salt Lake Tribune. In a 20-year newspaper career, Lewis has covered everything from Idaho preps to the Olympics in Sydney and Salt Lake City to the NBA.
He knows well the sense among journalistic colleagues that sports reporters, with their tradition of accepting swag, free pre-game meals and other perks, are seen as a little cavalier in the approach to their work.
“I’ve fought that perception,” Lewis says. “I’ve tried to stay clear of ethical problems. But I’ve also never felt that I’m slacking or fulfilling some lower standard because I’m ‘only covering a game.’”
Salt Lake City sports reporters say, usually with a snicker, that Fox routinely came to Utah Jazz pre-game meals that he wasn’t actually covering, loaded up a plate, then left the arena.
Jim Fisher, assistant professor of communication at the U of U, sees “an assumption of privilege that goes with every level of sports” as a problem in covering sports, as well as playing them. “You get this hero-worship of athletes which leads to ‘jockitis’ in high school and to a certain extent in college, too. Athletes are simply held to a different standard than others in society. In sports reporting, you’ve generally seen a whole different ethical standard.”
Some, however, are genuinely trying to attack the problem. Michael Anastasi, Tribune managing editor for sports and features, routinely estimates the cost of pre-game meals for his reporters at Utah Jazz, RSL and collegiate matches, then sends the organization a check each month. It can equal a pretty penny. The Jazz management, for instance, routinely lays out a substantial banquet for sports reporters—with salads, fresh fruit and two to three main courses.
In Glen Feighery’s mind, the heat on sport reporters will only increase in coming years. Feighery, a U of U assistant professor of communication, cites a flood of sports scandals that reach beyond Xs and Os as one reason for sports reporters to toe an ethical line. More people are paying attention to the real-world implications of sports and its stars. Think the Balco steroids case, involving San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, doping scandals in professional bicycling and the Atlanta Falcons’ Michael Vick’s dog-fighting case.
It’s tough to report on sports figures breaking the law if a reporter doesn’t have his own ethical toolbox.
“If you cover sports for a living, you can’t very well play both sides against the middle anymore,” Feighery says. “Saying, ‘I’m not a journalist’ shouldn’t cut it.”
KUTV has placed Fox on leave pending the outcome of his case, says news director Tanya Vea. In exchange for his guilty plea, Fox has agreed to cooperate with investigators and to testify against bigger fish in the mortgage scam. According to court documents, Fox and Atkins signed papers that they would be living in the homes being remodeled for resale, but they actually lived elsewhere.
Fox did not return calls seeking his comment at KUTV or KFAN, where he continues to host a sports talk-radio show.
Meanwhile, Fox may eventually have to rework another response on his online biography. To the question, “what is your dream job?” Fox answers: “I have it!” cw
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