Jameis Winston, Incarcerated Bob, and the Hazards of Trusting TMZ's Accuracy

By Jason Lisk
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We weren’t going to talk about the Jameis Winston “gambling” rumors that originated four days ago from someone known as Incarcerated Bob, who we have encountered on things like the unfounded Tahj Boyd gambling rumors. You can read more about David Purdum’s interactions with Incarcerated Bob from last year, which gives a good sense of what type of source we’re dealing with. There’s also this site which tracked his predictions on free agent and player stuff and found that he does not do as well as claimed as an insider.

Even after Clay Travis wrote about them yesterday at his FOX Sports-hosted domain, we weren’t going to cover it. Travis wrote about allegations of point shaving coming from a gambling website, ultimately saying that he didn’t believe that Jameis Winston was dumb enough to do it.

Ultimately, I just don’t believe it’s possible that Jameis Winston could be this dumb. That’s despite the fact that Winston has clearly made very dumb decisions before. There’s no way Winston was shaving points, right?

But the story is out there, you guys can read it for yourselves and make your own determination. 

Judging by the rapidity with which this story has spread throughout the Internet, is there anything that the average college football fan believes Jameis Winston wouldn’t do? It says a lot about Winston’s reputation that hundreds of thousands of you see this point-shaving story and immediately think, “Yeah, that sounds plausible.”

Then TMZ ran the story today, saying that “[n]ew reports have surfaced alleging Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was involved in a point shaving scheme to help an old high school teammate win a $5,000 bet.” There is no link to whose reports those are. There is no specific reference or any indication that TMZ actually has a source. The assumption has been that TMZ merely passed along the “report” from Incarcerated Bob.

I contacted TMZ to see if they had any response, because the “report” was not linked or identified, and the story was attributed to “TMZ Staff.” I wanted to know whether it relied on any additional information other than what was in the original posting by Incarcerated Bob. TMZ provided no official comment on the source of their report.

Unlike Travis’s piece, TMZ did not provide any thoughts or opinions on the “reports,” merely passing on that they existed (and then updating to say that they contacted the FBI). This is the same outlet that has done some great work in nailing two of the biggest sports off-field stories this year: the Donald Sterling recording and Ray Rice tape, two stories that mainstream outlets might not have advanced in the same way.

It’s also one that has gotten plenty wrong, such as reporting about a bar incident involving Mike Evans that was originally reported as current, but got time/place wrong, and having many of the initial details involving an incident with Colin Kaepernick wrong. Though they deserve a lot of credit for bringing the Ray Rice elevator surveillance tape to light, their two most prominent producers later issued contradictory reports hours apart from each other as to whether or not the NFL had seen it before it went public.

Nevertheless, TMZ putting today’s piece out there pushed the Jameis story to a whole new level. We can certainly question the ethics of this–possibly citing a report from someone with the reputation of Incarcerated Bob without citation–but for an outlet like TMZ, who has been in the middle of so many big stories, they now own it by not allowing consumers to judge the credibility of the underlying source.

I also spoke with Clay Travis about the decision to post on the internet rumors involving Jameis Winston, and what went into deciding whether to post on a rumor that was gaining traction in the recesses of the internet. 

“We’ve done stories on Internet rumors before if they attain enough attention that it’s impossible to ignore them,” Travis told the Big Lead. “For instance I wrote on the Internet rumor that 2011 LSU tanked the BCS title game against Bama over a fissure in the team over quarterback play. Basically, I trust my readers to decide for themselves whether to believe a rumor. I’ll give them my opinion, but if hundreds of thousands of people are reading and sharing the story, it’s reached a critical mass online to be referenced.”

Travis also mentioned Auburn paying players through slot machines that was out there, along with a Cooper Manning story that derived from a Sports Pickle (a satire site) article, but was circulated by plenty of people believing it to be true.

“The SEC is rife with all sorts of conspiracy theories. We get them all the time. I just think it’s kind of a fascinating question, do you give them a legitimacy when you know that hundreds of thousands of people are reading and discussing them, by discussing them further? Or do you kind of shine sunlight on them, to make people aware that stories like that exist. My opinion is you make people aware that stories like that exist. If they achieve that level of sharing, it’s probably a sign that a lot of people believe it to be true.”

“I understand the argument otherwise, but this isn’t 1968, when one person in charge of a newspaper decides what the news is and if that person kills the story it never emerges,” Travis said. “Internet stories bubble up, legit or not. If you don’t address them in some way because you don’t think they’re “real stories” then you end up with a John Kerry Swift Boat mess, where a schism develops between what people believe to be true outside of the mainstream and what’s actually true.”

It’s an interesting question in this case, because I fall on the side, because of the underlying source here, of concern about legitimizing a story that is not ready to be given further authority. It’s a constant question to consider in this age where information can move so quickly, and can come from any number of sources in real time–a balancing of legitimizing a story rather than shining a light on something that is swelling.

Tomahawk Nation actually went through the game film, by the way, and found that, while the numbers and teammate performance changed, Winston’s play was similar each half. Not that you should be surprised or have to look further into this given the source, but the claims of shaving are dubious anyway.

At the very least, if Travis is going to heighten visibility on something written by Incarcerated Bob then he should disclose near the top that the source has a very questionable reputation. A vast majority of his readers — and TMZ’s — are not ones who reflexively know not to trust anything that originates there. When asked about that, though, Travis said that he had never previously crossed Internet paths with Incarcerated Bob, was unaware of him, and only became aware of this story through all the people sending this particular story over the last several days.

For what it’s worth, TMZ has now come out with two more stories. One where TMZ says Jameis’ teammates say there is no way he shaved points. Another where TMZ reports that UAB is looking into allegations that Chris Rabb, a defensive end at the school and the person identified in the original rumor as having placed the Louisville first half bet, was involved in gambling that would affect his eligibility.

Of course they are. The tail is wagging the dog now. TMZ passes on a rumor, based on something reported by Incarcerated Bob, and appearing on Fox Sports. It gains even more traction than it otherwise had. Any school doing due diligence would therefore have to do a basic inquiry once the rumors got so large, allowing TMZ to follow up with a report that the school is doing just that–looking into rumors that are appearing everywhere. This in turn gives the appearance of legitimacy to a report based on Incarcerated Bob.

In reality, we’ve learned nothing so far. The sun remains to be shined on just how we got here, whether there is any fire here at all with all the manufactured smoke, and then we get to do it again next week. There’s never a shortage of things on the internet, or things that people will believe about Jameis Winston at this point.

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