‘Alternative facts’ nothing new in sports, a minefield of misinformation – Chicago Tribune
My introduction to sports writing included the fascination of covering former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, a master motivator who harmlessly twisted the truth like a Bavarian pretzel.
Before his second-ranked Irish beat Navy 58-27 in 1993, for instance, Holtz said the game was bigger than playing No. 1 Florida State and called the Midshipmen “the most improved team in the country.” Players believed Holtz, and nothing else mattered.
Coming to Chicago exposed me to Dick Jauron, whose last season as Bears coach came in 2003. After one of Jauron’s final losses, a 12-10 clunker in Detroit, he declared it quarterback Chris Chandler’s “least good performance.” Not Chandler’s worst. Not the most awful, headache-inducing eyesore Jauron had witnessed in a 7-9 season. The least good.
“What do you want me to say?” a testy Jauron asked that day. “Write whatever you like.”
Sports writers typically do, though in this business, building stories around unvarnished truth is so rare, we applaud candor when we hear it.
Nothing perks up a columnist’s ear like a player bluntly saying his team was outplayed or outcoached or “got our asses kicked.” Nothing gets a commentator going on a rant quite like hearing a coach or player call out his team publicly. If we heard brutal honesty more often, we would become desensitized and those exceptions would sound more like the rule.
Instead, we routinely operate inside a world insulated by the kind of “alternative facts” President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway referred to Sunday when disputing reports of the crowd size at the presidential inauguration.
The squabble brought to mind something much less historic but similar: snickers in the press box after attendance for the Dec. 24 Bears-Redskins game was announced at 39,387 — a figure close only if stadium officials counted by two. You saw the same cynicism in November after city officials estimated 5 million people turned out for the Cubs parade, an inflated claim impossible to disprove and not important enough to devote time to doing so.
We have become almost conditioned in the sports media to view such fights over minutiae as futile, forcing reporters to pick their battles carefully over “alternative facts” to argue bigger issues. Unless they come from Elias, sports facts seem more disputable than ever. Journalists instinctively want to record history accurately, but newsmakers and spokespersons often want to shape the record to reflect the way they want it remembered.
The half-truths and omissions pile up, gradually eroding trust and credibility as the relationship between organizations and the men and women who cover them slowly dissolves. It creates a distrust and distance that ultimately hurts the consumer — the public — as the flow of information gets clogged with pettiness. It happens so often in sports that White House press secretary Sean Spicer sounded like he was auditioning for an NFL PR job during his terse, no-questions-asked news briefing Saturday.
Like every major sports city, Chicago has processed its share of such “alternative facts” over the years.
Bears coach John Fox‘s tenure threatens to go down as the Golden Age of Obfuscation at Halas Hall. When the Tribune reported in December 2015 that the Bears had decided injured wide receiver Kevin White would not play that season, Fox carped: “There are always a lot of reports, then there are facts.” Four days later, the Bears ruled White out for the year.
On Nov. 23 this season, Fox called quarterback Jay Cutler “day to day” with a shoulder injury in response to an NFL.com report he would be out for the season. A week later, Cutler underwent surgery for a torn labrum.
More examples exist, and every NFL coach participates. Look at Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who admitted he “screwed up” in not disclosing cornerback Richard Sherman‘s knee issue on the injury report for the last month. The active omission could cost the Seahawks a draft pick.
The act of misleading takes on an art form in the months before the NFL draft, a span one former scouting director dubbed “the lying season.”
“Everything said between now and the NFL draft has to be considered a lie,” he said.
And rest assured that between now and college football’s national signing day, some poor prospect’s version of an ironclad scholarship offer will be misconstrued as an “alternative fact” too.
In the spirit of competition, coaches at every level get caught up in the moment before big games and invent incentive out of enemy quotes they misrepresent for a rise, manufacturing bulletin-board material to excite a team. In sports, they call it motivation. In politics, they might refer to it as propaganda.
The Bulls have told some memorable whoppers too. In 1993, general manager Jerry Krause denied plans to meet with European star Toni Kukoc a week before Kukoc arrived for a team physical.
Remember coach Tom Thibodeau saying Luol Deng was “day to day” as Deng lay in a hospital bed suffering badly after a botched spinal tap? Or Fred Hoiberg getting off on the wrong foot by saying Joakim Noah asked to come off the bench when he never did? Or general manager Gar Forman announcing a national search for Thibodeau’s successor when Hoiberg already was packed and ready in Ames, Iowa?