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Deadspin reporter on Cory Gardner story: ‘If it’s wrong, it’s my fault’

A recent Deadspin post questions Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), for claiming he played football in high school. Here’s how it all started, when the Senate candidate told Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty about his jock days. (Video: The Washington Post)

The headline on the Deadspin post asked a question: “Is A Colorado Senate Candidate Lying About His Football Career? [Update]” The tag on the piece includes less equivocation: “Filed to: LIARS.”

This strong stuff came under the byline of Deadspin staffer Dave McKenna, and it drove at the often profitable crossing of sports and politics. As McKenna tells it, someone at Deadspin alerted him to Karen Tumulty’s Washington Post story on whether 40-year-old Republican Cory Gardner could knock off Democratic incumbent Mark Udall in this year’s Colorado Senate race. The lede of Tumulty’s piece:

Cory Gardner figures that what he needs to know about big-league politics he learned as a fullback and middle linebacker for an eastern Colorado high school so small that the guys had to play both offense and defense.
“I used to play against a high school football team that always used to run the single wing. And eventually, other teams figured out that they ran the single wing. And so they prepared for it,” the two-term Republican congressman said as he made his way through a game-day crowd at the Air Force Academy’s Falcon Stadium this month. “The Democrats are stuck running the single wing.”

Of that claim, McKenna says, “somebody thought I’d be weird enough to check it out,” referring to his colleagues at Deadspin. So he did, per custom: The 53-year-old McKenna has experience in patting down old claims of sports heroism/participation. For instance, in 2010 he busted former D.C. Council member Michael Brown for having falsely claimed to have been an All-Met selection. Also in 2010, he caught a Maryland state legislator falsely claiming a three-year stint with the Dallas Cowboys. Disclosure time: I formerly worked with McKenna in my time as editor of Washington City Paper and consider him a friend.

To perform the same probe of Gardner’s claims, McKenna went first to the Yuma Pioneer, the newspaper that covered Gardner’s Yuma High School. He was referred to 77-year-old Chuck Pfalmer, whom McKenna describes as “the go-to guy for football facts about Yuma High.” The money quote from Pfalmer: “Cory Gardner wasn’t on the football team.”

The Deadspin story combined that on-the-record testimony, a non-response to McKenna’s request to interview Gardner and an absence of other records to conclude that Gardner was laying down a football fable. McKenna:

There’s no mention of Gardner’s football career in his online bios or in any news outlets in the LexisNexis database, at least not that I could find. An editor at the local newspaper, the Yuma Pioneer, said everybody knows Gardner, but nobody remembers him as a football player.
And, again, in a town Yuma’s size, folks wouldn’t likely forget a guy who played running back and linebacker for the Indians.

One fellow who didn’t forget was Gardner himself. After the story landed yesterday at 6 p.m., Gardner had a field night on Twitter:

Just the sort of documentary evidence McKenna was seeking. More testimony spilled in from Gardner campaign spokesman Alex Siciliano, who noted, “Cory Gardner played football from Junior High through Sophomore year in high school.”

The countervailing and overwhelming information from Gardner & Co. was sufficient to prompt not a retraction or a correction to the Deadspin story, but an “update,” that squirrelly refuge of web reporting:

UPDATE: Gardner campaign spokesman Alex Siciliano sent the following, presented in its entirety, via email: “Cory Gardner played football from Junior High through Sophomore year in high school.” Eli Stokols of FOX-31 in Denver is reporting the Gardner campaign told him, “Gardner played football through soph year of high school, never played varsity.” Reached Wednesday night at his home, Chuck Pfalmer, longtime stats keeper for Gardner’s alma mater, Yuma High School, and a primary source for the story, told me: “Cory did play football for three years” in high school, and that his records show that Gardner spent his junior year “on varsity.” During a lengthy conversation about Yuma High football on Tuesday, Pfalmer repeatedly said Gardner had not played football at the school.

McKenna told the Erik Wemple Blog: “It’s my responsibility to get everything and to the extent that anything in there is not right, that’s my fault and nobody else’s. If it’s wrong, it’s my fault.”

Perhaps the Gardner folks would have responded more quickly had they realized an allegation of sporting mendacity was about to hit the Internet. But McKenna’s request for an interview stated only that he wanted to talk about “the high school football and the single-wing comments in the Washington Post profile this week.”

Allegations of lying fueled this fall’s (other) great sports-journalism controversy. ESPN suspended Grantland editor in chief Bill Simmons in late September for three weeks after he said on a podcast that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was a liar. Though this blog argued that ESPN’s own investigative reporting had proved about as much — thus freeing Simmons to hurl the charge — the network’s sanction did force a reexamination of just how much evidence (a great deal) is required to support such a claim. McKenna’s story and its flick-of-the-wrist “update” treat it just like any other detail to fit into a story before deadline.