December 18, 2017

A thorn in the side of UNM Athletics reflects as he prepares to move on

Andy Lyman

Daniel Libit at Manny's, a Jewish Deli in Chicago.

Love him or hate him, Chicago-based journalist Daniel Libit is set to soften his laser focus on the University of New Mexico athletics program. Libit said he hopes journalists, and the taxpayers and students who keep the school’s athletic department afloat, build on his work to hold Lobo leadership accountable on spending and transparency.

NM Political Report met with Libit at Manny’s, a Jewish deli near downtown Chicago where former Barack Obama advisor David Axelrod reportedly holds court.

While eating a pastrami sandwich and matzo ball soup, Libit had choice, and sometimes pointed, words for UNM, journalists covering the university’s athletics program, his critics and college sports in general.

After running the website from his apartment overlooking Navy Pier for about a year, Libit is mothballing NM Fishbowl to expand his coverage beyond one relatively small fish in the pond of college athletics. The website will remain intact but he says he doesn’t plan to keep hounding UNM’s athletics department. Instead, Libit hopes local journalists will step into the void and cover UNM and its sports programs more like a public institution and less like entertainment.

Libit said that type of attention can be “very uncomfortable” for schools like UNM because those institutions don’t “stand up particularly well by the lights of public institution best practices.”

Libit said his work at NM Fishbowl boils down to a year-long pitch on how collegiate athletics can be covered nationwide.

“The whole thing of covering college sports is a naturally kind of permissive, subservient exercise,” said Libit, who began his journalism career almost a decade ago in Albuquerque.

Libit declined to offer details, but said he’s “exploring with a group” to launch a nationally-focused “college sports muckraking website.”

Given that Libit, in his mid-thirties, got his journalistic start as a teenage intern writing about local sports for the now-shuttered Albuquerque Tribune, his cynical coverage of the Lobos over the past year may come as a surprise.

“I think it’s great to have sports teams,” Libit said.

But, Libit said, colleges should take a step back and reevaluate what purpose those programs serve. He also said there should be a “reckoning” of what college sports brings to surrounding communities. At least in New Mexico, college sports create a sense of community, he said, but the often touted economic benefit or marketing function of college sports is not working for UNM. The university isn’t likely to ever draw out of state students Libit said.

It’s not realistic to completely eliminate UNM sports, he said, but ticket holders, boosters and taxpayers should seriously reconcile what purpose athletic programs serve.

This is how you do it

Stepping off the beat, Libit challenged New Mexico journalists to be more aggressive and not let institutions—namely UNM—control stories and narratives.

“I’d like them to get some balls,” Libit said of New Mexico journalists. His main target on Twitter is the Albuquerque Journal, the state’s largest newspaper.

He named a few outlets he respects for holding power accountable, but said New Mexico in general is a “news desert.”

“There’s a deficit of journalistic chutzpah in New Mexico and I just don’t honestly think there’s enough people who know how to do journalism there,” Libit said. “I don’t think there’s enough people in New Mexico who understand the adversarial nature of journalism.”

Geoff Grammer, a sports writer for the Journal who covers the UNM basketball team on a day-to-day basis, doesn’t take offense to Libit’s pointed comments towards the largest paper in the state.

“I don’t think he’s wrong,” Grammer said of some of Libit’s criticisms.

But, Grammer said, Libit has a major advantage over many journalists in New Mexico. Libit doesn’t need to help fill a weekly paper or keep a website updated daily with content.

“He has the dream journalist job,” Grammer said.

Plus, Grammer said, Libit is a one-person operation, sets his own deadlines and doesn’t answer to an editor.

“He gets to do it with no oversight whatsoever,” Grammer said. Meanwhile, he said, Journal readers still want game-day reporting and sports scores.

Fan criticism

From the beginning, Libit intended to report on UNM athletics as a public institution. Through his reporting, he built a following of fans of his site praising his work as well as fans of the Lobos who say he’s taking things too far.

Jeffrey Holland, the executive director of a substance abuse treatment facility in Albuquerque, is one of Libit’s most vocal critics. A Lobo fan himself, Holland told NM Political Report he is able to view criticism of the school’s athletic program objectively, but that Libit isn’t as talented as others think he is.

“I’m not not some cherry-colored glasses wearing person that’s going to say, ‘UNM is right no matter what,’” Holland said. “But I’m also not going to sit here and say that Dan is this god of investigative journalism that came here and showed us poor New Mexico folk how it’s done, because that’s not the fact either.”

Holland doesn’t harbor negative feelings towards Libit personally, but he does question Libit’s use of unnamed sources and his motives for investigating UNM.

Libit says all of his sources are credible and that information from his unnamed sources often ends up being validated.

Libit brushes off his critics, but when NM Political Report asked specifically of his online relationship with Holland and other fan groups critical of his reporting Libit fired back.

“I think they’ve just lost their minds on account of a very stupid thing, which is Lobo Athletics,” Libit said. “They’re just sports honks and they’ve been deranged by their own fandom and at some point, be a fucking adult, grow up and treat the subject with some rigorous honesty.”

Holland responded that Libit is just as guilty of being wrapped up in his disdain for UNM Athletics.

“I think you could insert the words, instead of fandom, investigative journalism and put his name and reverse that quote to him,” Holland said.

Despite getting his hackles up over fans who he says aren’t viewing the institution’s actions critically, Libit acknowledges that collegiate sports are near and dear to fans.

“Look, if I was to do this on any college sports program I would get probably a lot more than a couple of critics who’ve gotten their ass chapped by this,” Libit said. “So that’s perfectly to be expected.”

Correction (12/20): This story previously said Daniel Libit said the University of New Mexico doesn’t draw a large number of student-athletes from other states. Libit said the state isn’t ever likely to draw out of state students.