I spent much of the week trying to remember which former colleague was nearly duped by a local athlete.
I can’t quite put my finger on which former SVM-er it was, and I don’t remember who the athlete was, but I do remember most of the story.
Our guy was sent out to a practice to get a feature story on Kid A – something that we do a hundred times a year.
Most of these features come from some mix of an athlete doing well, a coach or parent tipping us off to an angle, or us just plain needing something local to fill space.
So here’s a rough recap of our guy’s conversation with Kid A.
The first few questions were the usual fodder about the sport, the team, the season, etc.
Then comes the out-of-the-box question.
“So, what else do you do?”
This one is really tricky. I remember asking a group of softball-playing sisters this once, and they shrugged and said all they did was play softball.
But, Kid A wasn’t like that.
“Well,” he said. “I spent the summer at a Bible Camp.”
“Oh yeah?” Our guy said. “What did you do there?”
“All kinds of things, including helping kids with special needs,” Kid A smiled. “I got really close to some of those kids.”
“Yeah, what did you do?” Our guy gets a little excited about a neat storyline about Kid A. Something beyond just a kid that can hit a ball or run fast.
“Well, we taught them how to play different sports, like basketball and volleyball, and did a bunch of activities with them. It kind of ended sad.”
“Yeah, one of them died,” Kid A said.
“How did that happen?” Our guy, probably dreaming about a long-form weekend feature spilling from this, asked.
“Well…” Kid A smiles and then laughs. “OK, I can’t go any farther.”
“None of that is true,” Kid A said.
“None of it?”
“No, the guys put me up to it,” Kid A said. “I’m sorry. Let’s start over. I’m sorry.”
This was a pretty harmless trick, considering the kid fessed up to the lie before the end of interview, and I think our guy respected him a little for having the guts to go on that long.
But, it could have ended embarrassing for the kid if that had hit newsstands in the Sauk Valley, where people would have known it not to be true. And it could have been career-threatening for the journalist, whose credibility would have been shot.
After this week, it should be pretty clear why we journalists ask a lot questions.
While most of the athletes in the world of sports try to be honest, and many stop short when they are just doing a gag, some of them don’t.
There is a writer at Sports Illustrated having to defend himself pretty mightily after reporting on the death of Manti T’eo’s fake girlfriend.
T’eo will face scrutiny for this incident, whether or not he was in on it. His draft stock might plummet, and he’ll forever be remembered more for this than leading the Irish back into national prominence.
The journalist might end up finding it hard to keep a job. After all, it was his story and his duty to make sure the information in the story was accurate.
The whole episode was not a glowing endorsement for the world of sports.
Then there are journalists like David Walsh for the Sunday Times in London, who first accused Lance Armstrong of steroid use the day of Armstrong’s first Tour de France win 1999.
He spent the next 13 years investigating, asking questions, being sued, getting shaken down by Armstrong lawyers at cycling events and publicly ridiculed by the rider himself.
He did that all for the truth. Along the way, he angered readers, other writers, probably most of the cyclists, and every Armstrong-backer the world over.
Walsh did the hard part of this job that many journalists choose to avoid, and he came out the other side on top.
As one of my predecessors said late one night years ago, “If you’re friends with everyone you cover, then you’re probably not doing your job.”