Kenny Jacoby is a University of Oregon and Daily Emerald alum. After serving as a sports reporter and editor at the Emerald for some time, he began his career as an investigative reporter in 2016, helping to uncover a story on UO tight end Pharaoh Brown and his acts of violence.
After leaving UO, Jacoby worked for GateHouse Media’s national data and investigative team before transitioning to USA Today, where he’s spent time covering covering issues in the criminal legal system, higher education and sports, including sexual assault cover-ups in the NCAA.
His series “Predator Pipeline” has garnered several awards for investigative journalism and his ongoing work surrounding LSU is making headlines across the U.S. as his team’s work has led to several firings and regulatory changes.
When did you make the transition from pure sports reporting to investigative journalism, what was the breakthrough?
I would say the pivotal moment was probably when I was at the Emerald and we published our investigation into Pharaoh Brown. That was the first investigative story I’d really ever done, and it was one of my first times kind of reporting on the dark side of college sports and preferential treatment and abuse by athletes and potentially members of the staff. After that, I’ve kind of gotten a series of tips, one after another that are in a similar vein and one of those was LSU, over a year ago now. Started reporting on it, and here we are.
It was actually a tip that one of the people on the sports desk had gotten, that there had been a police investigation into Brown for strangling his girlfriend. He had learned from a few people around the program that Brown had also beat up some of his teammates including punching Matt Wogan, the kicker, so hard in the head that he got a concussion.
We kind of thought: “Okay, there’s a pattern going on here, and why has the school not done anything about it? This guy’s still like the fan favorite, the star of the team.” We said if we can verify all three of these, then I think we have a story.
Ultimately I spent hours and hours calling people on the phone, former football players, stalking their Facebook pages and trying to talk to their friends, just doing anything we could to try and run this down. Finally, after like two months, we were able to get it and it was only out of our desire to get that story out that we did that investigation. At the time we didn’t even realize what we were doing: investigative reporting. The response to the story was so interesting and so big that it crashed the Emerald website. I was just kind of hooked after that.
Ever since, I’ve really learned a lot about the dynamics of gendered violence, sexual assault and trauma and the impact trauma has on the brain. Having that whole understanding and honestly, practice speaking with survivors and others affected, I needed those skills and also public record skills when it came time to do this LSU story.
The LSU story has been a sort of breakthrough for you, take me through that process. What went into it and where’s it at now?
It all started with a tip that I got from a parent of a student at LSU who said that his daughter was being abused by a football player there and the school wasn’t doing anything about it, was covering it up. I got the tip because I had worked on a series of stories right before that about sexual assault in the NCAA and the parent had read that and reached out to me. From there it was just a matter of trying to build sources, gather public records and police reports and disciplinary records and try and figure out what was happening. We found that there was a number of football players that had been accused of sexual assault, and the school hadn’t done anything about it. As we reported more and more, we learned that this was not just an athletics issue either, it was the whole university systematically mishandling and ignoring allegations of sexual assault.
We published a big story about rape allegations against Derrius Guice in August and followed that with what was our signature story about the problems across the whole school. Then LSU hired an outside law firm to conduct a review of everything we’d reported. The review came out in March and it’s been kind of non-stop ever since that. We learned about Les Miles, we broke that news, and people have been fired and have resigned and been suspended since. Now it’s at the legislature where a bunch of lawmakers have been holding hearings and calling LSU officials to testify. That’s kind of where we are now, the story that never ends.
Do you see this type of reporting becoming a bigger focus amongst student journalists and journalism schools?
I do think so, especially for journalists who are in college. I think people, just in the past few years, have started to really see college sports in a different light, partly because of all the abuse that’s been uncovered at different universities. And the way college sports has become such a lucrative industry, only for the coaches and the administrators and not for the athletes. I think it’s more important than ever possibly that sports journalists have that sort of training and have that eye for looking out for abuse and injustice instead of just focusing on the team. I hope it does become more mainstream [for] sports journalists especially to start doing watchdog-type work as well.
What message or advice would you pass on to young journalists hoping to learn more and break into this style of journalism?
Well I think it starts with acknowledging that there is an injustice in college sports that underlies the whole enterprise. It has a foundation of injustice. Once we come to accept that then I think it becomes easier to start to identify areas where abuse is happening. If somebody is only focusing on what happens on the field, that’s exploitative, right? You’re making money off it, the school’s making money off it, everyone is making money off it except for the people who are actually playing the sport.
I would say rather than coming into sports journalism with a focus on the sport itself and your passion for that sport, come into it wanting to do good journalism, and then it’s easy to do both. You can cover the games and hold people accountable. It helps to know how to use public records, how to conduct an accountability interview, how to do research, how to dig.