A couple of weeks ago, SB Nation contributor Steven Godfrey wrote one of the best pieces I have ever read about any sporting topic, anywhere. It was about the college football bag man, the guy who delivers the under the table cash and benefits to top notch recruits at big time college football programs. No kidding, whether you're a college football fan or not, go read that article. Seriously, like right now, because it's some of the best writing you'll find anywhere on the Internet.
This will be the exact opposite of that. This piece explores the seedy underbelly of NFL rumor mongering, and how teams do everything they can to get a guy to drop into their lap on draft day.
And it's obviously a parody, as fictitious as skinny knees or thick tonsils.
The Rumor Man excuses himself to make a call outside, on his "other phone," to finalize an anonymous rumor about a top ten draft pick. The player is rated No. 1 at his position and is expected to be long gone by the time his team selects. We're sitting in a popular restaurant near the stadium almost a week before Draft Day, talking about how to start rumors for potential draft picks.
"Nah, there's no way he'll be there when we go on the clock, but you still have to do it," he says. "It looks good. It's good for down the road. Same reason my wife watches Real Housewives of Atlanta. It's all bullshit, all made up. All of it. These scouts and GM's talk to each other. It's a waste of Internet bandwidth, but they're doing the same thing to our guys right now in [divisional rival's town]. Cost of business."
Technically, this conversation never happened, because I won't reveal this man's name, or even the town I visited. Accordingly, all the other conversations I had with different rumor men representing different NFL teams over a two-month span surrounding Draft Day didn't happen either.
Even when I asked for and received proof -- in this case a phone call conversation that became a tweet about a former SEC football player -- it's just rumors hitting the Internet. When things are done correctly, there's no proof more substantial than one man's tweet over another. That allows for plausible deniability, which is good enough for the coaches, general managers, coordinators, and scouts. And the man I officially didn't speak with was emphatic that no one really understands how often and how well it almost always works.
These men are fans who believe they're leveraging football success one skinny knee or short armed rumor at a time. I can't show you the medical records, and neither can anyone else. You might think you see the medical records -- a flash of a phrase like ''watery eyeballs", or "really chapped lips" -- but that's just a random tweet.
This is the arrangement in high-stakes NFL draft subterfuge, though of course not every player is anonymously criticized. Providing rumors and bogus arrest reports about players is not a scandal or a scheme, merely a function. And when you start listening to the rumors, you understand the function can never be stopped.
"Last week I got a call. We've got this offensive lineman we really want. And he's country strong. The [offensive line coach] calls me and tells me he's watching tape of this kid against [big time college team]. Says he never got owned by the d-lineman, not once. Now, how do you get a possible first round pick to drop into the middle of the second round? I just go dig out in my garage and find an old medical report from five years back when he had a frankel, braces on his teeth, a whole shit ton of mouth work to correct a set of snaggle teeth. I call a scout of mine and mention that [this players] braces will be permanent, and there's so much wiring in his goddamn mouth it will interfere with the calls into the quarterback. He's also a chronic masturbator that's developed calcium deposits in his elbow that will prevent him from bending his arms at more than a 24 degree angle."
"I don't view what I do as a crime, and I don't give a shit if someone else does, honestly."
This is how you become an NFL Draft rumor man.
"I think it took me seven years. I knew some guys. They knew some older guys. And before, I really didn't believe any of this happened. Then I start coming around different events, parties, tailgates, and I make some smart ass tweets. After a while one guy says, 'Oh hey, I know him. It's okay, he loves the [team], got a great imagination' and we start talking. I make a smart ass comment about a running back having a wide ass and affecting his center of gravity, and the next thing I know I was a part of it. I wanted to be."
Once properly vetted, your imagination usually buys you first or secondhand fictional information most coaches and GM's go apeshit over as the draft gets closer: player run-ins with Filipino tranny hookers, severe flatulence that could require a locker room fumigation, and most importantly: ridiculous, mysterious medical maladies that cause top players to sink like the Titanic come draft day.
From these general categories, narratives are developed and stories are created, but over time specific rumors are shaped by the rumor men. It's a somewhat fluid situation, at least over long amounts of time.
Regardless of the team, rumor men gravitate towards two centers of power: Twitter and the team message boards, the latter because of population, the former because of power. Regardless of where top-dollar rumor men might live, the Internet serves as the primary center of operations. After all, that's where the disinformation is.
Rumor men tend to operate in plain sight. And while there might be a kind of cabal of guys with particularly rich imaginations who direct operations at private meetings, there aren't dungeons and robes or some kind of "X-Files" syndicate in a smoky boardroom.
"No basement at Mom's house, although a couple guys have some pretty ridiculous-looking man caves. I mean, we're shooting the shit about college football players that have declared for the draft. That in and of itself isn't a crime. Sometimes we go to Caribou Coffee."
The rules of rumoring tend to follow your typical sleeper cell or drug-dealing outfit. Talk in person as much as possible, preferably in group settings. Don't use email. Never interact with the media directly and avoid the team's public relations department whenever possible.
And make shit up. Lots of shit.
"It's the craziest thing. We make up the craziest rumors, use 'em for a while, then toss 'em. The worst part was convincing my wife it wasn't the beginning of dementia or just general stupidity, because none of the stuff we would throw out there would make any sense to anyone. Except scouts and GM's. Then it's on the front page of [team hometown newspaper and website]. My wife just rolls her eyes and shakes her head in amazement."
Rumors are seasonal and used mostly around the height of draft season, when local rumor men need to communicate quickly with other scouts across the NFL. Later on they'll be used to communicate directly with coaches and GM's.
I can call up a guy in personnel and say, 'Hey man, we're hearing Jimmy Garoppolo is a better quarterback than Teddy Bridgewater. What do you think?'
"The first player is the comparative value and a decoy. Here, it's Jimmy Garoppolo. The rumor is that he's better than Teddy Bridgewater, the guy we really want. In this example, Garoppolo is okay, but no one REALLY thinks he's better than Bridgewater. I mean for the love of Jerry Fuckin' Burns just look at the tape. But put out just enough doubt and it starts to spread like wildfire, and the closer you get to the draft, we might as well be a league that's a forest fire waiting to happen, man."
"I don't know shit about football. I know even less about the human body, injuries, and physiology. But everyone believes me."
He leans in and looks me directly in the eye.
There's a weird code of personal conduct for a rumor man. It's okay to throw out flashy rumors, but within the limits. Set up your ridiculous medical rumor, run with the one about a guy having trouble with authority, float something about the player flipping off a kid in a hospital. After all, you're passionate enough to be rumor mongering, so you might as well enjoy yourself.
But while drawing attention to your rumor is fine, attaching long lasting damage to the player because of the rumor is forbidden. It's a fine line to walk, but you don't want the rumor blowing up in your face.
"Look, at the end of the day we all want these kids to get drafted. And after the draft is over, the rumor men like to get together and laugh our asses off about which rumor was the best and did the most yet least collateral damage."
Extenuating factors to consider when putting together a plan:
- What's the climate of the league?
- Is this a medical rumor or coachability one? How fast will this rumor spread? Or is someone already starting another rumor about this player, meaning you're the competition?
- Any criminal history? Could other rumors (money laundering, grand theft auto) be arranged if proposed rumor flops?
- Who is the one person that can be trusted to take that rumor about the player and keep it in the public view for as long as possible by getting the most retweets and shares on social media?