(Photo of Jim Harbaugh by Eric Upchurch, via Wikimedia Commons)
By MIKE HERNDON
Did you hear Jim Harbaugh might be going to Los Angeles to coach the Rams?
He’s not, but you probably read somewhere last week that the possibility that Harbaugh might leave Michigan to take over one of the NFL’s most mediocre franchises was “a very real thing.”
You may have even heard an ESPN commentator encourage the Rams to go after Nick Saban, who is supposedly eager to erase the “little stain” of his two years with the Miami Dolphins from his career record by proving he can win in the NFL. This, despite there being no evidence, no quote, no anything to indicate that Saban gives the slightest damn about going back to the NFL.
Welcome to silly season. Hope you brought your wading boots.
The Harbaugh “story” developed when Colin Cowherd shared an off-air comment by MMQB’s Albert Breer on his show. Breer has since denied making it, but people latched onto Cowherd’s “report” and therefore other news organizations began picking up on it, giving it legs for a day or so until Harbaugh squashed it with a rather emphatic denial.
The Saban stuff, meanwhile, was dreamed out out of thin air. As long as there are coaching searches in the NFL and Saban is still upright, he will be linked to them – if for no other reason than the mention of his name draws attention.
Coaching searches are notoriously fraught with rumors and red herrings. Agents often leak misinformation about interest or contact in an effort to either get their clients an interview or get them an extension from their current employer. With solid information scarce, news outlets scramble to share every scrap of information they come across and, while some do their due diligence in attempting to corroborate their info, many others in this age of the 24/7 news cycle do not. Some, as with the Saban report, simply throw out names because they know they’ll get web clicks.
We, as American consumers of news, are apparently ill-equipped to tell the difference between a manufactured rumor and a well-sourced report, as evidenced by the viral sharing of fake news, bullshit conspiracy theories and false memes during and in the months leading up to the presidential election. If it sounded interesting and corresponded to our particular viewpoint, we shared it on our Facebook or Twitter pages, truth be damned.
Many of the tips you should use to insulate yourself against fake news are the same as those that will help you avoid falling for a coaching rumor that has no basis in fact:
- Consider the source. There are legitimate news sources that try to corroborate their information before reporting it, and there are disreputable sources that report anything they hear or anything that supports their (and their subscribers’) point of view. There are also writers and commentators who have made a living out of being provocateurs and pot-stirrers. It’s your job as a reader to know the difference — and the only way to really do that is to read their work (not just one story, but several) with an open mind and a discerning eye. Guard against confirmation bias. If a site only tells you good things about your team, your candidate, your beliefs, and bad things about the opposing teams/candidates/viewpoints, there’s a good chance it’s not reputable. It’s just preaching to your particular choir.
- Corroborate the info. Don’t rely on one report, even from a reputable site or news source. Check other sources you trust that cover the same team or beat. If you can’t find anyone else reporting it, be suspicious.
- Use your brain. So much fake news, manufactured rumor and dreamed-up conspiracy nonsense would be ignored if we asked ourselves one simple question: Does this make sense? Did it make more sense, for instance, that 79-year-old Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, with a history of heart trouble, died in his sleep or that someone murdered him for politically motivated reasons and the coroner and local police covered it up? Did it make more sense that the U.S. Army, which has been fighting for years in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, was conducting training exercises in Texas in 2015 or that it was actually a not-so-covert military buildup in preparation to “take over” a state that is already in the union? And does it make sense that Harbaugh, a coach who reportedly lost control of his locker room in San Francisco just two years after leading them to the Super Bowl, would leave Michigan, his alma mater, after only two years in order to return to the NFL with a team that has no offense to speak of? And to do it without having beaten Ohio State even once?
There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Some websites once considered frivolous are hiring reporters and reporting actual news, often beating traditional outlets on big stories. Sometimes a reporter gets a scoop so big that no other outlet has it for a day or so. And sometimes coaches take jobs that don’t make sense. These decisions aren’t always made strictly on the prestige of a program or the money being offered. Sometimes ego, family considerations or fractured personal relationships (such as, with an AD or franchise owner) come into play.
But Harbaugh to the Rams never made sense. If Breer had anything solid, he would have said it on the air. Cowherd has a track record as a provocateur — splashy pronouncements help ratings. While a denial doesn’t always mean anything — coaches often lie about interest in other jobs — Harbaugh’s was unequivocal and emphatic.
Most of all, it didn’t make any sense that he’d leave his alma mater with unfinished business to go back to the NFL, where his bombastic style reportedly wore thin on his players in San Francisco. Harbaugh’s rah rah schtick only works for so long on grown men. In college, he’s got a new audience every three to four years.
And Saban? He left the NFL at least partly because he didn’t have the level of control with the Dolphins that he desired. He has that and anything else he wants at Alabama. While his name will continue to be floated around for NFL and major-college openings every year, the smart money says the only place he’ll be leaving Alabama for is the lake — when he decides to retire.
Ernest Hemingway once famously said: “The most essential gift for a writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” With the wealth of sources, reputable and not-so-much, afforded us by the internet, the same is true for readers. Now more than ever.