Austin Stock: A High School Athlete in Trouble or Victim of a Newspaper Headline Hunt?

A cub reporter at the Sun-Sentinel landed a major headline back in mid-November. Writer Dieter Kurtenbach claimed he had uncovered documents and found sources that showed a star high school quarterback may have transferred schools in violation of state policies.

His big story landed on the Sentinel's homepage November 17 and as a front-page story in the print edition. It began with an ominous paragraph: "A nationally recognized high school football team's championship may be jeopardized by questions about the transfer of their star quarterback."

The story claimed Austin Stock transferred from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Coral Springs to powerhouse Miami Central without actually moving to Central's territory. That could, under certain circumstances, violate rules that keep athletes from transferring just to get on better teams. It could jeopardize Stock's chances at a college scholarship and at Central's chances of repeating as state champs.

But things haven't gone well for Kurtenbach since his big story. Investigations into the 

allegations have not reached the same conclusion, and other media outlets haven't picked up the same damning tone as the Sentinel. Still, Kurtenbach's not backing down.

"There's a shitload of smoke around this program," Kurtenbach, 23, said about Miami Central. "We do have a lot of things that are incredibly damning, to put it one way. It's a situation that's a lot more sinister than just some botched paperwork."

That's not how it has appeared to others. The Miami Herald's coverage has been decidedly more cautious. Kurtenbach says it's because his competitor is scared of offending Miami Central, a school it must cover regularly. (Herald Executive Sports Editor Jorge Rojas declined to comment specifically but said: "I'm happy and satisfied with the work our reporters have done on this story.")

So at first, the story seemed to be about a cub reporter burning shoe leather on a series of articles that may or may not be legitimate. Then, the apparently legitimate reason for Stock's transfer became clear.

Before the football season began, Stock's family reportedly told school officials that they had lost their home. His mother had moved them into a hotel in Hollywood, and the rules governing high school sports allow Stock to enroll in any school.

The Sentinel even reported that Stock's mother moved into the hotel after she was forced to sell their home for a $110,000 loss. That's right: The Sentinel went after a homeless kid who had switched schools because his family was forced to live in a hotel.

Stock hasn't commented since the story broke. But things seemed to be looking up for him and his homeless family last week. The Miami-Dade School District investigated Stock's transfer and decided there was nothing wrong. Then the Florida High School Athletic Association's board met in part to decide whether to launch an investigation into Stock's transfer. The board had been given paperwork from the Miami-Dade School District on the issue and has the power to force Miami Central to forfeit the season if it found wrongdoing. Instead, the board took no action. No investigation, not even a statement.

In response, the Herald published a short item explaining the board's lack of action -- the apparent conclusion to this sordid tale. There appears to be nothing, meanwhile, on the Sentinel's website about the board's lack of action.

Kurtenbach had an easy explanation for that. He said it wasn't worth reporting the board's inaction because it will have to do something soon. He was confident in that because he had sent the association a packet of documents that should prove his reporting. Kurtenbach said he couldn't reveal what was in the packet.

Most news organizations don't allow reporters to be actively involved in an investigation. Kurtenbach's editor, Tim Stephens, said he would look into whether Kurtenbach had helped investigators, but he said the paper's reporting has been solid. "Certainly we stand behind our reporting up until this point," said Stephens, who holds the title of sports topic manager for the Sun-Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel.

After the Pulp spoke with Stephens, Kurtenbach called back to say what he had said previously was off the record. It was not, and when told this, he said: "I don't need someone coming around and fucking this up for me. I don't need this."

Since the story broke, Kurtenbach says he has received 32 death threats. He doesn't want his editor to know because he thinks they may take him off the story. "I'm the only one on the ground," he said. "I'm the only one staking out the hotel."

And maybe that last bit should have given someone an idea that Kurtenbach may be in too deep. There he was, a 23-year-old cub reporter, staking out the hotel room of a homeless football player. All in the name of one more headline.

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Eric Barton
Contact: Eric Barton