By now, you’ve probably seen the Deadspin investigation from yesterday on (former) ESPN contributor Sarah Phillips. And besides media people getting to gush over such a meta, media-centric story, there was a good reason for said gushing: this was weird.
There’s almost too much to wrap your head around. Phillips started out posting on a gambling message board, then got a column on the message board’s site, then moved up to writing for ESPN.com in a short amount of time, all without people knowing who she really was.
On top of that, she allegedly (with the apparent help of a shady character on the side) roped people into internet-based scams with a promise of big money but a reality in which they, in one example, lose the rights to a Facebook page they created, and the 300,000 people that like it? And that doesn’t even get into the parody Twitter accounts she apparently tried to take over.
Beyond all the craziness, though (and there is a bottomless well of craziness, evidenced by this post from another of the Twitter people who briefly got caught in the Phillips web, and Phillips’ own tweet-based explanations of events yesterday) are the following issues:
How much did ESPN know about her?
What do they do now?
What were they doing hiring her in the first place?
Let’s answer that last one first: it was clear what they were doing. Phillips was an attractive woman (though not necessarily the attractive woman in all the pictures supposedly of her on the gambling website she used to write for – just one more bizarre detail) who seemed to know her stuff about gambling. That was a combination that would appeal to readers.
From that perspective, it’s understandable. From the perspective that, according to an ESPNer cited anonymously in Deadspin’s report, no one at ESPN actually met with Phillips in person before hiring her, it’s less understandable, and brings in all kinds of questions about how rigorous their hiring process is. In response to such questions, Patrick Stiegman, ESPN.com’s editor in chief, defended the Phillips hire by saying:
“Sarah Phillips provided the information necessary to contribute to us. We will review this instance and see if anything needs to be changed with our process.”
That, of course, doesn’t answer much, since there aren’t any details on what “the information necessary” was – and at the least, it doesn’t come out and say the account that they never met with her in person is inaccurate. It suggests, though, that they had enough contact with her to be confident she was an actual human being and not some creation of Nilesh Prasad, her partner in alleged online scamming.
There’s also this: we’ve heard that ESPN was confident she was a real person, for two reasons.
1) She provided the legal identification necessary to get paid.
2) Whoever hired her at ESPN Skyped with her.
This probably dispels one of the crazier Sarah Phillips conspiracy theories floating around: that she’s really just one guy. And while it’s within the realm of possibility that Nilesh Prasad could’ve used a real person’s documents and hired an actress to Skype with whatever ESPNer did her video chat interview, it’s not in the realm of likelihood. Falsifying an identity seems part of a scam that’s gunning for 300,000 dollars, not 300,000 Facebook likes.
But don’t worry, America: the internet’s strangest story of the week is still undeniably strange. And as more info comes out about it, we’re confident it will only get stranger.
Dan Fogarty contributed to this post.