How I Learned the Facts of Life: Professor George Young

Back when I wrote about football, George Young, the New York Giants’ long-time general manager, became a dear friend. Most of what I comprehend about the game I learned from George, whose teaching usually came in the form of gnomic aphorisms.

We spent hours on the phone talking about football players, politics, lunacy both football and political (George described himself as, “One of the few Democrats in a league slightly to the right of Attila the Hun”), history (George had taught it), food (he lost a ton of weight), and journalists–especially, of course, the many, many reporters who covered the Giants.

Indeed, the modus operandi of the Giants’ press corp became my particular fascination.

Then and now I read a lot of football press coverage. During the week between games there isn’t a lot of real news, and each reporter is restricted to covering the minute aspects of a player’s slightly (or OMG! not) pulled hamstring.

Naturally, each reporter tries to thrust his story before the others. The time-honored way of grabbing attention is by reporting a story that no one else has–digging out an insider tale, the more negative the better.

During the 1990s, a writer I’d met and enjoyed reading began to report some Giants locker room conflict. The writer’s source was a player who “preferred to remain anonymous.”

The story, surreptitious and vague, made me uneasy. After a few weeks of such discomfort, I called George and asked him about it.

He gave an idiosyncratic huff. “There’s nothing–” Then he huffed again and said, “Sportswriters shouldn’t be cozying up to players. It damages their credibility. [This writer] worked himself into a friendship with [a particular player]. He prods [the player] to tell him about internal problems and [that particular player] likes to talk and complain.”

“There’s nothing in this story, no trouble in the locker room.” Then George thought for a moment and said, “You know how to determine if it’s a genuine story? Read the other beat writers. If it’s real, they’d be picking up on it.”

He asked me whether any other writer had been reporting conflict in the locker room.

“No,” I said.

“That’s how you know it isn’t a story,” said George Young.

But things have changed a lot since George and I talked. The mad proliferation of social media must have wiped out George’s Rule, right?

No. Sure, the burden of carving through the massive amount of noise passing for news falls on us readers. But then it always did.

Back when I was uneasy about trouble in the locker room, there were only a couple of newspapers I had to check into, to see if the story had been picked up. Nowadays, I’d have to check…the same couple of newspapers. Yes, I check them digitally but that’s the only difference. Whatever else is out there in cyberspace purporting to be factual football news isn’t. It’s rumor or some dude’s opinion.

So let me edit only slightly George’s Rule. I’ve bolded the alteration: “You know how to determine if it’s a genuine story? Read a few other credible sources. If it’s real, they’d be picking up on it.”

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