clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Sports Has a Fake News Problem

In the aftermath of the showdown between Donald Trump and the NFL, the disinformation tactics that rocked electoral politics have reached the world of sports

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here are a few scoops you didn’t see scrolling across ESPN’s Bottom Line this weekend:

Michael Bennett burned an American flag in the Seahawks locker room.

Fox refused to air NFL games because of the protests.

Jerry Jones gave a rousing, pro-flag speech to his players that sounded like Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday reincarnated as a Fox News host.

Though the term has been abused by everyone from President Donald Trump to John Elway, these stories are textbook examples of “fake news.” They were written to deceive, to push a political agenda, or simply to make merry mischief. Not long ago, when Trump was distracted by other fronts in the culture war, it was suggested that the sports world was a rare refuge for truth and fact. If that was ever the case, it isn’t any longer. Sports has a fake news problem.

When they were monkeying with 2016 elections, the manufacturers of fake news stuck to a certain playbook. They took real news and distorted it until their creations were offensive enough to be shareable on social media. Hillary Clinton did say the basic rights of Muslim Americans ought to be protected. She did not say—as a well-trafficked piece of fake news had it—that sharia law would be “a powerful new direction of freedom.”

Fake sports news operates the same way. Michael Bennett has been an eloquent spokesman for social justice; in September, he accused the Las Vegas police of racial profiling. But as BuzzFeed’s Michelle Broder Van Dyke reported this week, Bennett never grinned while torching Old Glory, as a phony photo purports he did. (Notice Pete Carroll looking on with glee.) The doctored photo is like the fever-dream vision of the NFL that Trump laid out last week, in which the flag is routinely desecrated and owners “are afraid of their players.”

Similarly, it’s real news that the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones is Trump-friendly. Jones contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, and last week, while players were protesting across the NFL, Trump was reportedly burning up Jones’s cellphone. According to one Cowboys player, the team’s inoffensive anthem display last week was partially engineered by Jones.

Last fall, a bit of fake news made Jones into a studlier kind of patriot. “You gentlemen are world-class athletes, but you are also actors,” Jones supposedly told his players on September 11. “You perform on a stage that is 100 yards long. Today, you play the role of a patriotic superhero. … I want you to remember, you are the actors, but this is my stage and you will play the role I tell you to.” The Facebook post even included asides that read like stage directions: “Jerry waited a second and made eye contact with several players to make sure his words had sunk in.”

Anyone who knows Jones’s hemming-and-hawing verbal style could easily spot the fake. Another sign: a similarly rousing speech was put in the mouth of Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt. “You are all simply paid performers on a stage and that field is my stage!” Hunt allegedly said. The real Hunt told the Kansas City Star that the story was an “internet hoax.”

Those bits of fake news at least grew from kernels of truth. Others are pure fabrications. Last week, a site called ran a headline reading: “BREAKING: Fox Sports Cancels ALL NFL Broadcasts ‘Until Players Respect the Flag.’” A Fox spokesman was quoted making the “bombshell” announcement on Fox & Friends. Of course, Fox never refused to show NFL games, and the network’s sports division has little to no relationship with Brian Kilmeade’s cable channel.

Last month, when a banner protesting racism was hung on Fenway Park’s Green Monster, the legit press went hunting for the culprits. A bogus Twitter account calling itself “Boston Antifa”—supposedly the online bullhorn of the anti-fascist group—took credit for the banner. Some news outlets fell for the scam. The “Boston Antifa” account is now suspended.

Fake sports news, like fake political news, doesn’t just set out honey traps for conservatives. Back in the 1980s, Trump and his fellow USFL owners sued the NFL for antitrust violations and won $3 in damages. According to BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman, a Facebook page called The Other 98% took the real story and added a juicy epilogue: that Trump was banned from the NFL for life. The post had 59,000 shares.

The notion that sports was impervious to fake news rested on two ideas. One—in the words of writer Alex Reimer—is that “there’s a greater appetite for facts in sports than politics.” The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel suggested that fake sports news was easier to debunk. Unlike “stolen” elections, you can’t just pretend your team won the Super Bowl. Especially if your team is the Jets.

Let’s take those ideas in reverse order. Fans (mostly) acknowledge the official results of games. But there are plenty of gaps in the journalistic record where conspiracies can flower. In 1999, before a game against Texas A&M, the Texas Longhorns stayed at a Ramada Inn in College Station and suffered indignities ranging from slow meal service to late-night crank calls. After Texas lost the game, the message boards I frequent crackled with talk of treachery. I’m embarrassed to admit that I can still recite the hotel manager’s name (Dinesh Patel), and that I participated in the brief, ecstatic moment in which he became—to borrow a phrase from conspiracist Jim Garrison—“one of history’s most important individuals.”

As for sports fans having a greater appetite for facts than political partisans, I ask this: In the Age of Trump, how can you tell the two apart?

Trump’s wicked denunciation of NFL protesters set off a panic within the league offices, as ESPN’s Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham chronicled. In such a charged atmosphere, you can see how a phony story could gain traction. And, really, what’s weirder: the fake news that had Jerry Jones waxing about “patriotic superheroes”? Or the real news—reported by Van Natta and Wickersham—that one NFL official thought players should wear uniform patches that said “Team America”?

Some fake sports news probably owes less to politics than prankery. Politifact said—the site that published the phony story about Fox not showing NFL games—is run by a “self-described ‘liberal troll’ who wants to fool conservative readers with outlandish stories.” In this case, the gambit worked: The Fox story, according to the story’s published meter, was shared more than 12,000 times.

Or take that fake Twitter account “Boston Antifa.” On Tuesday, the account tweeted an NFL meme designed to delight liberals and enrage conservatives. The post’s geotagging feature said it was posted from Vladivostok, Russia. Critics—including one U.S. senator—pounced: Aha! Vladimir Putin’s henchmen are staging a black op in the NFL!

This, too, proved to be a head fake. MassLive had already noted that “Boston Antifa” was the work of two American pranksters. Their contribution to fake news was to simultaneously pose as Putinites and American antifascists—it’s like a Russian nesting doll made out of Adam Schefters.

Fake sports news will flourish as long as Trump keeps talking sports and probably long after he moves on to other subjects. The good news is, sportswriters, like political writers, have made a side beat out of correcting the record. (See any number of pieces debunking the Bennett story.) The new wave of fake sports news also highlights a question once asked by former Raiders executive Amy Trask: Why do otherwise skeptical news consumers believe whatever they read about sports? With junk like the Bennett story filling their social media feeds, they probably won’t anymore.