Even though I was young and just out of college, I should have known better.
Less than a year after graduation while I was working at another newspaper, a well-dressed, seemingly very focused man in his 40s walked into the office one afternoon and began to spin a story of officiating college basketball games up and down the West Coast.
Now, he told me, he was on the verge of breaking into officiating in the NBA. He dropped the name of legendary NBA referee Darrell Garretson and indicated he was kind of a protégé of Garretson. He thought it would make a good story for his hometown newspaper.
You can see where this is going. I didn’t check the facts closely enough and ran the story. Apparently, I provided a few laughs for people around town who had grown up with him and knew he was a legendary self-promoter, which is a polite way of saying liar.
Eventually, I tracked down Garretson in Los Angeles and he disavowed any connection to the con man except being a passing acquaintance and described him in unflattering terms, to put it mildly. My follow-up story corrected some of the exaggerations of the first story but it didn’t make me feel a whole lot better.
Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey and the revelation that Manti Te’o’s girlfriend was imaginary and all the questions about why the facts of their stories weren’t checked more strenuously brought back memories of that story.
It was hardly the only time someone tried to con me. Unfortunately, a few of them did get their stories past me, for a while at least.
Here’s another story, also from when I worked at a different newspaper:
One night I received a phone call at home from a high school basketball coach. His team, which had lost only one or two games all season, was seeded No. 1 in its sectional and would be playing its first game against a team in its first year in the OHSAA tournament.
No one had a scouting report on the first-year team and somehow in his mind this was a reason to be worried.
He called me because his assistant coach had phoned the coach of the hopelessly overmatched team and pretended to be me, hoping he would reveal something to a reporter that could be used to create at least a partial scouting report. Now he was begging me not to ruin the scam by calling the coach for a preview story on the game.
My reaction after hanging up was to immediately call the coach of the first-year team, tell him what had happened and stand back and watch the fireworks.
One of my favorites, Al McGuire, used to say he never announced it when he suspended a player, he just told them to fake an injury.
I should have remembered that applied to high school as well as college when a coach once told me the reason one of his starters missed an important game was because of an injury.
Later that season when I was talking to the player and referred to his injury, the look he gave me told me immediately I’d been misled.
If there is a lesson in Armstrong’s story, Te’o’s story or any of these stories, maybe it is that a healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing in life and in journalism.
Embracing a feel good story as a fan without keeping your eyes open is not a good thing. And neither is writing one without keeping your eyes firmly and clearly fixed on the people telling you the story.