The tale of former ESPN gambling writer Sarah Phillips leaves many with more questions than actual answers.
Phillips had a weekly column at ESPN.com entitled, Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics, before she was fired on May 1st after Deadspin published a damning story about her. In the initial Deadspin story, which checks in at more than 5,000 words, Phillips is accused of using fake photographs on a previous column at Covers.com, scamming fellow gamblers out of thousands of dollars, as well as being involved in some scheme to steal popular Internet websites and direct their traffic to a new sports/comedy website that she was involved with.
Later stories by Deadspin, Awful Announcing, and others showed that Phillips was in some way involved with a few popular Twitter parody accounts, including the OhWonka account that had more than 800,000 followers, in some sort of master Internet scheme.
There were even some questions as whether she existed at all, though Internet sleuths determined that she is a 22-year-old girl from Oregon that may be romantically involved with a business associate named Nilesh Prasda. The two previously worked at a T-Mobile store together where they were eventually fired for rigorously exploiting loopholes and selling phones outside of the store.
There are other weird stories attached with Phillips and surely more will come out as more and more news outlets begin to investigate her past. A trend has developed of Phillips being involved in scams so why would it shock any of us to see more see the light of day?
Many questions are still yet to be answered about Phillips and her history, but there's an even bigger question at hand: How did her employers hire her and not see any of this?
Phillips worked as a columnist at Covers.com for five months before she jumped to ESPN to write for the company's Page 2 section of ESPN.com. She went from a poster on Covers.com message boards to a columnist at ESPN within a year. That's a meteoric rise that few are lucky to ever experience.
But how did it happen? How was she able to be hired by two organizations, despite frequent rumblings that she had some skeletons in her closet? According to Covers.com message boards, posters frequently raised issues about her veracity, but were either punished or told to stop talking about her.
Covers.com hired her sight unseen for a weekly column at the gambling website, though a Covers editor told Deadspin that he did talk to her over the phone several times once hired. The editor, Jon Campbell, didn't mention the vetting process at Covers for contributors, but from my own experience I know it to be minimal.
I contacted Ashton Grewal, an associate editor at Covers, about freelancing about college basketball for the gambling website in 2010. I was referred to Jason Logan, the college sports editor, and was quickly commissioned to write a piece about five major college basketball conferences.
I never talked to anyone on the phone let alone met anyone at Covers. No one at Covers asked for references or anything more than the resume that I sent in unsolicited. The only information that I was asked for was my home address so that they knew where to send a check.
I don't think Covers' behavior in hiring me as a freelancer is far different than how other organizations conduct themselves, but it was clear that no research into my background was done. I admittedly had way more journalism experience than Phillips did at the time of her hiring -- she actually had no journalism background whatsoever -- but I easily could have made up my resume.
Covers not investigating into Phillips despite many of its loyal readers protesting it to do so is embarrassing, but the gambling website doesn't have near the resources or reputation of ESPN.
ESPN hired Phillips a mere five months after her debut at Covers. ESPN Page 2 editor Lynn Hoppes, formerly of the Orlando Sentinel, somehow discovered her columns at Covers and quickly decided to offer her a job.
An ESPN source told Deadspin that no one had ever met Phillips face-to-face so at best Hoppes had a phone conversation before hiring her. Some, including Outkick the Coverage's Clay Travis, have noted that it's not uncommon to never meet editors face-to-face when working for an Internet news organization, but it doesn't gel with ESPN's employment hiring history.
George Solomon, ESPN's first ombudsman and a former sports editor at The Washington Post, told the International Business Times that ESPN's hiring process was very thorough when he was involved with the organization. A poster on SportsJournalists.com, identified as MizzouGrad96, said that when he was freelancing at ESPN in 1999, he had extensive phone conversations with 2-3 editors there and I never did anything of substance for them.
He also recalled being up for a NFL blogger job, which he was never a serious candidate, but had three phone interviews.
If ESPN is known for its thoroughness, how could it hire someone with such a sketchy past in such a high-profile position on their Page 2 -- now ESPN Playbook section?
Travis raised the issue of her relative attractiveness propelling her to a high-profile position despite her youth and question marks surrounding her background. It's a legitimate theory and certainly could have played a role in her promotions in lieu of the sketchiness in a way reminiscent of Jayson Blair ascending quickly through The New York Times ranks despite editors questioning his work at every step of the way.
ESPN.com's editor-in-chief Patrick Stiegman released a simple statement on Phillips, but it doesn't offer much insight.
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.
The process, known to be quite thorough, clearly failed ESPN in this instance, but it's unclear just what kind of changes could be made. No one was willing to speak with the International Business Times on the record about the ramifications at ESPN, notably what will happen to Hoppes, who hired Phillips.
It's conceivable that Hoppes could face some sanctions for the embarrassment ESPN has endured over Phillips, but no one knows for sure what will happen at the notoriously tight-lipped Worldwide Leader in sports.
It's also impossible to know for sure right now what kind of vetting process ESPN put Phillips through. Solomon and others have noted the thoroughness of ESPN's background searches, but a simple Google search would have shed some light on criticism of Phillips.
So how did Phillips get an offer at ESPN given the circumstances?
It's the million dollar question and all signs point to carelessness on behalf of ESPN, but we may never find out exactly what happened behind the scenes with ESPN staffers unwilling to speak on the record about her employment.
The whole situation does show that carelessness can sometimes irrevocably damage the image of any journalism outlet, though in this instance it will only be a blip on ESPN's radar.
Still, as ESPN's first ombudsman wisely told me, A news organization is only as good as its reporters.