Sarah Phillips and the Craziest Sports Media Scandals of All Time
Photo Credit: Deadspin
Who is Sarah Phillips?
Is she a real, 22-year-old Oregon State co-ed? Is she a hoax; dreamed up and brought to life as a means of extorting money from well-meaning Facebook fanboys and ESPN executives alike?
Whatever the case may be (and whatever other unsavory details Deadspin may dig up), it's clear that this emerging age of sports journalism—in which the rules are being rewritten on the fly to account for the advent and growing influence of Twitter and the blogosphere—has left the profession ever more vulnerable to error, inaccuracy and outright scandal.
Of course, "Sarah Phillips" isn't the first entity to game the system for one reason or another. Misdirection and infamy has been a part of sports media since the inception of pens and publishers.
With Ms. Phillips in mind, let's have a look at some of the strangest/weirdest/craziest stories to come from among those charged with writing and reporting them.
A Quick Recap of Sarah Phillips
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Before we jump head-first into the rest of sports-scandaldom, here's what we know about Sarah Phillips.
According to Deadspin, Phillips is a 22-year-old Oregonian girl with a history of defrauding folks alongside a 26-year-old man named Nilesh "Nick" Prasad, with whom she may or may not have been romantically involved.
She started out as a contributor on message boards at Covers.com, a sports betting website, and was later given the opportunity to write columns for the site. Several months after that, she was picked up by ESPN.com to write for Page 2, which has since been rebranded as ESPN's Playbook.
All without so much as a background check to make sure she was legit.
Along the way, she and Prasad allegedly scammed a 19-year-old kid named Ben out of his NBA Memes Facebook page as a means of promoting their own project, at some times referred to as Faux ESPN, and at others as the Sports Comedy Network. They also appear to have extorted several thousand dollars from a 30-something named Matt, whom Phillips pestered for money in a supposed attempt to get more legitimate advertising for her website.
Long story short, Ben has his NBA Memes page back, Phillips is no longer employed as a freelance writer by ESPN.com and Matt is still out several grand.
Another Phillips and ESPN
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The Sarah Phillips story is far from the first Phillips-related fiasco that Deadspin has discovered on ESPN's doorstep.
In 2009, Deadspin was one of several outlets that helped to break a story regarding ESPN baseball analyst Steve Phillips' affair with Brooke Hundley, a 22-year-old production assistant at the Worldwide Leader.
Phillips' attempt to end his relationship with Hundley resulted in a campaign of harassment against the former GM of the New York Mets and his family.
All told, Phillips was fired, divorced from his wife and ended up in sex rehab, while Hundley parted ways with ESPN.
But Deadspin's role in the matter didn't end there. In retaliation for being misled on the Phillips' story by ESPN officials, Deadspin decided to publish "Horndog Dossier," a series of unsavory stories regarding on-air personality Erik Kuselias and executives Jed Drake, Katey Lacey and David Berson—the latter two were let go as a result of their romantic involvement.
Moral of the story? Don't cross Deadspin...ever.
Marv Albert Gets a Bit Too Frisky
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Marv Albert essentially set the most dubious standard for sports broadcasters and sex scandals, 12 years earlier.
In 1997, the Hall of Fame announcer—who currently stars as the lead voice for the NBA on TNT, the NFL on CBS and the New Jersey Nets—was brought up on felony sexual assault charges stemming from an encounter with a woman at a Pentagon City hotel. During the trial, it was revealed that Albert had carried on an affair with the victim in question for 10 years and had been involved with another woman during separate incidents in 1993 and 1994.
Albert eventually plead guilty to misdemeanor assault charges and was given a 12-month suspended sentence that was later dropped.
In response to the trial, NBC fired Albert prior to the 1997-1998 NBA season, replacing him with Bob Costas. The network rehired Albert prior to the 2000-01 season, thereby rekindling a relationship that had spanned two decades prior to being broken off in 1997.
Don Imus Spouts Off...Again
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Don Imus isn't strictly a member of the sports media per se, though his long and controversial career as a "shock jock" has landed him in some hot water in the sports world nonetheless.
His most infamous crossing of boundaries came in April of 2007, when he referred to the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hoes" on his radio show, Imus in the Morning. The comments drew outrage from all angles and led Imus to make a number of awkward appearances on talk radio and cable television in an attempt to apologize and save face.
CBS Radio cancelled his show just a few days later.
That was far from the end of the line for Imus as a sports instigator, though. In June of 2008, Imus was back to stirring up trouble on the airwaves. During a conversation with Warner Wolf, Imus insinuated that Adam "Pac-Man" Jones, the oft-troubled cornerback who played for the Dallas Cowboys at the time, was such a frequent offender of the law because of his race.
Jones was none too pleased by Imus' comments, though Imus himself was not reprimanded by his employer, Citadel Broadcasting Corp., for his actions.
Farewell, Bruce Feldman
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Not to harp too much on the Worldwide Leader here, but the sheer size of ESPN's operation has spawned too many gaffes to ignore.
Take the one that led to Bruce Feldman's perplexing ouster, for instance. According to Sports by Brooks, Feldman was essentially fired by ESPN for writing the biography of former Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach, entitled Swing Your Sword, even though he had express consent from network bigwigs to do so.
The problem, of course, stemmed from Leach's alleged mistreatment of Adam James, the son of ESPN college football analyst Craig James, back in 2009, well after Feldman began collecting material for the book.
Feldman published the book last summer but did little to promote it at the time, with the hope of avoiding retribution from his bosses in Bristol.
Nonetheless, ESPN execs Gary Hoenig, Pat Stiegman and Vince Doria opted to suspend Feldman indefinitely for his role in the Leach biography. Feldman has since landed back on his feet with CBS Sports.
The Bernie Fine Tapes
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The Worldwide Leader came under fire later that year when, in November, Outside the Lines broke news of two former Syracuse University ball boys coming forward with allegations of child sexual assault against Bernie Fine, a long-time assistant under Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim.
It later came to light that one of the accusers had fabricated his side of the story at the behest of the other, Bobby Davis, who apparently had been in search of someone to corroborate his abuse at Fine's hand.
So how, pray tell, is ESPN at fault here?
In 2002, reporters from the network had in their possession tapes of a conversation between Davis and Laurie Fine, Bernie's wife, in which the two discussed Bernie's abuses openly and matter-of-factually.
But, rather than notify local authorities in upstate New York of Fine's alleged abuses, ESPN opted to sit on the tapes until the fall of 2011, when Davis came forward again in the wake of a similar scandal breaking loose at Penn State.
Joe Paterno's Not Dead...Yet
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The Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State precipitated more than a few media-related gaffes, one of which exposed one of the many issues with instant news in the age of Twitter.
As recounted by Jeff Sonderman of Poynter.org, Onward State, a news site covering Penn State and College Station, reported the passing of legendary head coach Joe Paterno on January 21st. Paterno had been fired in November amidst the fallout from the Sandusky scandal and was in the hospital at the time of the report.
The story spread like wildfire through the blogosphere and Twitterverse before the Paterno family caught wind of it and promptly spread word denying the report.
Within hours, stories around the web of Paterno's passing were retracted, and Devon Edwards, the managing editor of Onward State and a student at Penn State, had tendered his resignation from the site.
Paterno passed away the next day.
Mitch Fudges the Facts
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College novices and seasoned pros alike have been the perpetrators of false reporting in the sports world.
In April of 2005, Mitch Albom, a columnist for The Detroit Free Press and the author of two best-selling books, included a bit about Jason Richardson and Mateen Cleaves attending the Final Four to see Michigan State, their alma mater, play for a spot in the National Championship game.
Trouble is, Richardson and Cleaves weren't at the game. They'd told Albom on Friday that they would be in attendance for the game on Saturday, but they never actually showed up.
The editor at the Free Press didn't touch Albom's copy—which had been turned in prior to the game—and drew a firestorm of criticism, with many raising concerns about Albom's celebrity status affording him a bit too much leeway amongst his superiors at the paper.
The Curious Case of Sidd Finch
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To his credit, at least Albom didn't fabricate the entirety of his story.
The same can't be said for George Plimpton, who wrote a story entitled "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch" that ran in the April 1, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated.
The story detailed a rookie pitcher for the New York Mets by the name of Hayden "Sidd" Finch, an English orphan who went to Harvard, studied yoga in Tibet and could throw a 168 MPH fastball.
Seem a bit outlandish to you? Well, as it turned out, it was. The entire story was an April Fool's Day hoax drummed up and later turned into a full-blown novel by Plimpton.
Plimpton wrote in the subhead, "He's a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd's deciding about yoga."
The first letters of which spell out, "Happy April Fool's Day."
The Play and the Prank
The Bay Area rivalry between Stanford and Cal has long been noted for its history of nerdy pranks and practical jokes between the northern California institutions, both on and off the field of competition.
The 1982 edition of "The Big Game," which ended on the infamous Stanford band play, provided plenty of fodder for the fun. "The Play" was cause for controversy at both schools, inspiring students at The Stanford Daily to publish a fake edition of The Daily Californian, with a lead story claiming that the NCAA had awarded the result to the Cardinal.
What's more, those students printed out 7,000 copies of their bogus paper and passed them out to Cal students on the Berkeley campus.
Since then, Stanford has taken the liberty of changing the final score of the game from 1982 back to "20-19" whenever the Cardinal beat the Bears in The Big Game.
The Old Adventures of New Christine
Photo Credit: The Los Angeles Times
Mike Penner never fabricated facts during his time as a sports writer for The Los Angeles Times, though he did attempt to forge a new identity in what turned out to be one of the most bizarre sports media-related stories of all time.
Penner, who at one point was married to fellow Times writer Lisa Dillman, struggled with gender identity issues late in his career. He identified himself as a transsexual in 2007 while writing about his experience transitioning into life as Christine Daniels.
He wrote as Daniels until October 2008, when he resumed writing under the byline of Mike Penner.
Penner passed away in November 2009 of an apparent suicide.
Hogue Goes Rogue
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James Hogue had little trouble assuming a new identity, particularly when doing so suited him well.
At one point, the infamous imposter took on the alias of Alexi Indris-Santana, a self-taught orphan from Utah, to gain entry to Princeton in 1988. He spent two years under that name, during which he spent time as a member of the track team and gained entry into the Ivy Club.
Hogue was arrested in 1991 and later sentenced to three years in prison with five years of probation and 100 hours of community service, for defrauding the university out of $30,000 in financial aid.
Fail at Yale
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But lest you think Ivy League fakery is limited to Princeton's hallowed halls, I give you the case of Tom Williams.
Williams spent three years as the head football coach at Yale before resigning on New Year's Eve 2011. When he applied for the job, Williams claimed that he had been a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship during his playing days at Stanford.
This is a claim that came under greater scrutiny when his quarterback, Patrick Witt, became a subject of national interest last year when he chose to play in The Game against Harvard rather than interview with the Rhodes committee in Atlanta.
As it turns out, Williams never even applied to be a Rhodes Scholar, much less wind up as a finalist.
But that wasn't the only fact that Williams fudged on his CV. He also mentioned on his resume that he'd signed on with the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent to play linebacker in 1992 and 1993, though there's no record anywhere of him having done so.
Notre Dame Says "No" to O'Leary
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Now, it's one thing to pad your resume to nab a gig with a football has-been like Yale. It's another thing entirely to trump up your career accomplishments for a historical powerhouse like Notre Dame.
Which is precisely what George O'Leary did back in 2001.
O'Leary left Georgia Tech after eight seasons and 52 wins as the head coach of the Yellow Jackets to replace Bob Davie in South Bend.
Just days later, the school noticed a number of inaccuracies in O'Leary's resume. Among them was a claim that he'd earned a master's degree from "NYU-Stony Brook University," which was presumably a conflation of NYU and SUNY-Stony Brook, where he once took two courses.
O'Leary also wrote on his resume that he'd earned three letters from the University of New Hampshire, though the school insists he never played a single game there.
The fabrications led to O'Leary's ouster after a week on the job, though he maintained that they had been a part of his resume long before he interviewed at Notre Dame.
O'Leary currently coaches football at the University of Central Florida.
Tim's Trip to 'Nam
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It's unclear whether Tim Johnson included any outright fibs on his resume, though whether he did or not doesn't change the fact that he was less than honest with his players during his one season as the manager of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Johnson succeeded Cito Gaston as the Jays manager in 1998, and promptly led them to their first winning season since 1993. Much of his success was attributed to Johnson's ability to motivate his players, particularly with horrific stories from the front lines in the Vietnam War.
Even though Johnson never served in 'Nam.
Rather, Johnson spent time in the reserves with the Marines, training mortarmen at Camp Pendleton in San Diego while playing in the Dodgers' minor-league system.
Johnson later apologized for lying about his time in combat, claiming that the urge to do so was borne on a sense of guilt that he stayed home to play baseball while his friends went off to war.