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Ray Duckler: McCann speaks softly and carries a big stick



Last modified: Sunday, October 05, 2014
‘Something’s off,” the Sports Illustrated editor told the Concord law professor.

“Figure it out.”

So Mike McCann did. He requested records from the University of Arkansas and pieced together a story, about sex, betrayal and corruption, that brought down a big-time football coach named Bobby Petrino.

Petrino was fired two years ago for having an extramarital affair with a woman half his age whom he hired for a job over more qualified candidates.

McCann doesn’t look the part of journalist with fangs, but don’t let his baby face fool you, or his affable manner, which puts you at ease before you’ve even sat down in his office at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

He’s an investigative reporter for a periodical known simply as SI, combining a legal background with writing skills to give the magazine a broader menu of topics.

If there’s a story worth writing, with proof available, McCann will find the information, then write it. Then he’ll bring his findings into his classroom as the school’s director of sports law.

“I hope it makes it more interesting for my students,” McCann told me last week.

Interesting? Try jaw-dropping.

Armed with a degree from Harvard Law School, he’s been writing for SI for seven years, replacing Lester Munson, now ESPN’s legal analyst.

It’s fitting that his office, as modest as he is, sits across the street from White Park, where a decades-old baseball field remains like an old friend.

Pictures of sports pioneers Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King hang on his wall, as well as a shot of the old Boston Garden and former Bruins great Terry O’Reilly.

That tells you a lot, providing a snapshot of a fan who grew up near Boston, worshipping the city’s four pro sports teams.

“Now that I’m writing in this industry, following sports is a little different for me,” McCann says. “I’m not and can’t promote any teams, so I have to curb things a little.”

Defending a star 
running back

Before that happened, though, events like the NBA draft equaled must-see TV for McCann. And when he heard college basketball analyst Dick Vitale mention that high school players were better off going to college rather than jumping straight to the NBA, McCann wondered.

“I thought that was wrong, and I chose to write a paper about it,” McCann said.

His tireless research showed that Vitale was, indeed, wrong, that there was no correlation between skipping college and having problems in the NBA, on or off the court.

Plus, McCann believed that the NBA had no right to set a minimum age requirement without collectively bargaining with the players’ union.

He wrote his paper, and the lawyer for a college football player named Maurice Clarett read it. Clarett, you may recall, challenged the NFL rule that said a player had to be at least three years removed from high school before being eligible for the draft.

After a great freshman season at Ohio State followed by legal and academic problems, Clarett sued the NFL to be included in the 2004 NFL draft.

His lawyer called McCann, two years out of law school, and asked him to join Clarett’s legal team. A court later ruled in Clarett’s favor, but the decision was overturned on appeal by Sonia Sotomayor, who now serves on the U.S. Supreme Court.

At the time, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells were interested in drafting Clarett.

Clarett was not allowed to return to college because he had hired an agent, ending his amateur status. By time the Broncos drafted him a year later, in ’05, he was out of shape and got cut. He never played a down in the NFL and suffered from substance abuse and depression in later years.

Clarett “wasn’t an angel, but at the end of the day you had a player who was clearly good enough to play in the NFL,” McCann said. “He would have been no later than a second-round pick that season. Belichick or Parcells could have been a major influence in his life and put him on a different course. It was a tragic story, sad.”

Breaking news

SI first called him shortly after Don Imus called members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.” McCann was teaching in Jackson, Miss., at the time, in 2007.

“They needed to interview a legal expert and had read my blog,” McCann says. “Was it defamation, and what would his defense be? I said if he had been sued, it would have been hard to argue defamation of character because that requires sort of a factual statement, not some inappropriate racist opinion statement.”

Soon, SI editor B.J. Schecter called looking for a replacement for Lester Munson. McCann has been freelancing for the magazine since, and he was hired by UNH last year.

Two years ago, Petrino, a 51-year-old married father of four, crashed his motorcycle and claimed he’d been riding alone. Soon, though, he disclosed that a former Arkansas volleyball player named Jessica Dorrell, 25 at the time, was riding with him.

She had been hired by Petrino for one of his staff positions, beating out nearly 160 candidates.

Hmm.

Schecter “told me there were aspects to the story that had some red flags,” said McCann, who knew what to do and how to do it.

He filed a records request with the university looking for all correspondences between Petrino and his staff related to Dorrell. But the school said only Arkansas residents were entitled to that information, so McCann asked a former student who lived there to file the request for him.

Bingo.

Before you could say “national scandal,” McCann had what he needed: giant emailed files revealing that nearly 160 candidates had applied for a job as player development coordinator, many of whom were eminently more qualified than Dorrell.

“The fact that they instantly sent his records makes me think they wanted this information out,” McCann said. “Normally you get a response that says, ‘No,’ but this one was, ‘Here you go.’ ”

Armed with documentation, SI writer Andy Staples called the applicants who had been turned down for the job. Turns out, Petrino had bypassed the school’s affirmative action statute and rushed Dorrell through the hiring process.

It also turned out that Dorrell and Petrino had had an affair. The SI.com report, written by McCann and David Epstein in April 2012, exploded across the country, exposing in great detail unethical, immoral and arrogant behavior within a program that featured one of the top college football teams in the country.

“It was a major story,” McCann said. “It brought out the human element, the unfairness involved.”

Lance

So did his interview with Lance Armstrong last year, shortly after the disgraced cyclist admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he had, indeed, used banned substances to help him win the Tour de France a record seven times.

McCann was the first post-Oprah reporter to speak to Armstrong, who had followed McCann on Twitter and trusted his work.

“Stressful,” McCann called it. “I’m not trying to feign humility, but it was unbelievable that he went from Oprah to me.”

McCann flew to Austin, Texas. He rented a car and drove to Armstrong’s estate, a huge compound enclosed by an electronic gate. Once McCann figured out how to use the digital communications device, the housekeeper let him in and Armstrong moved down a spiral staircase for their talk.

“His central theme was that everyone was cheating, so why was his conduct elevated to this position?” McCann said.

The two discussed a $100 million lawsuit filed by the U.S. Postal Service, which sponsored Armstrong’s team with a $40 million investment. The suit, still pending, claims the USPS would not have paid the money had it known Armstrong and his teammates were cheating to win races.

“Lance asked, ‘Where are your damages? You made money on this,’ and that’s an interesting argument,” McCann said. “And there’s evidence the postal service knew or had strong suspicion about what Lance was doing. They hired a PR advisor to help him with the allegations.”

The topics McCann can articulately address with wit and knowledge seem endless. About Derek Jeter and his squeaky-clean image, he said, “I tweeted out that he played 20 years of baseball and I never once wrote about him.”

And about the Ray Rice controversy, he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what happened in some cases, and sometimes it’s not, especially when you have a videotape.”

The Petrino and Clarett stories show that McCann needs no videotape.

All he needs is the rule of law to cite, and maybe a shovel to dig.



(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)