<
>

Sports lies easy to tell, swallow

This may have escaped your notice, but there's a guy who has been making the rounds of the Ohio State party scene in Charlotte, N.C. -- surprisingly thriving, by all accounts -- by claiming that he was an All-American tight end for the Buckeyes in the late '70s. He became a headliner at game-watching parties, taking photos with a lady on each arm, because when you get right down to it, who wouldn't want to hang out with a bald guy with an unfamiliar name who claims to have caught a touchdown in the Rose Bowl?

Giovanni Strassini was good too. He kept the charade going for two years. Among his fake accomplishments was an 8-yard touchdown catch in the 1976 Rose Bowl. He said he was drafted by the Browns, and who would make that up? Clearly, details were important to Strassini, perhaps as a means of keeping anyone in Charlotte from attempting to verify a completely verifiable lie.

Sports -- and not just sports at Rutgers -- make people do stupid things.

You probably know a guy like Strassini. Maybe not as brazen, but you've been in a conversation with someone who makes a bold statement about his athletic past that has made you wonder. And if you've been around youth sports at all, I can almost guarantee you've met someone who has created a reality that isn't so real.

I honestly wish I kept a file of ridiculous and false claims to athletic achievement I've heard. I swear this is true: One of the dads from our little league used to wear an Ohio State jersey and tell people he played tight end. He wasn't Strassini, but I'm pretty sure his claims were just as legitimate.

Over the years, I've become something of a connoisseur of the grand claim. I'm kind of a hyperlocal version of Snopes. My penchant -- let's call it a harmless hobby -- for fact-checking every boast that's checkable has earned me the rightful title of Chief Cynic around the house. It's not the only reason, but it's one of the reasons baseball-reference.com is bookmarked.

Most bogus claims of athletic feats are innocuous, just some guy trying to convince everybody he played "a couple of years in the minors" so you'll take him seriously when he yells at the umpire. But in some cases, I consider my fact-checking obsession to be a form of community service. Not everyone is harmless. The outrageous growth of the youth sports industrial complex is enough to send everyone who's not being paid to give pitching or batting lessons into an irretrievable depression. Seriously, what's wrong with you? Every parent with a checkbook is practically begging you to take his money.

And so, naturally, there are a million guys strutting around saying they "got drafted but blew out my shoulder" or "played pro for three years before my dad made me come home and work in the family irrigation business." Rare is the guy who actually downplays whatever it was he accomplished on the field or the court; the exaggeration has become the lingua franca of sports. But hey -- for $100 an hour, maybe it's worth it.

Or maybe not. There's a lawsuit in Texas -- of course there is -- in which parents claim their son was kept off the high school varsity lacrosse team because they weren't willing to support the coach's "side business" -- a training service with high-end camps and recruitment services. (The coach's name is Kevin Barnicle, which is precisely what Kurt Vonnegut would have named a guy selling "recruitment services" to gullible parents of high school athletes.)

The lawsuit, filed in February, names the coach and the clinic founder, who is also being singled out for falsely claiming he was an All-American lacrosse player at St. John's and caught an 8-yard touchdown pass in the Rose Bowl. Wait … wrong guy. The lawyer for the clinic founder says his client "may have inflated his experience, but we don't think he lied." So he said he was an All-American lacrosse player at St. John's when he wasn't, and he apparently admitted under oath that he never even attended college.

No, he didn't lie. He just kind of created his own reality and stretched it out from there. Which means that, in at least one lawyer's parallel universe, nobody in the history of man has ever told a lie.

Parents "inflate the experiences" of their kids, but we've been conditioned to expect that over the past 25 years. Thanks to guys like Barnicle, everybody's kid is getting recruited by someone for something or other. Once, the father of a junior varsity football player told me his son had been named to the all-league first team. "They have all-league for JV?" I asked, knowing the answer. He stammered for a moment before blurting out, "They sent him a medal in the mail."

Everybody's got a story, and sometimes the mouth just runs ahead of the brain, like a dog on a retractable leash. If you're in your 40s and want to remake yourself, creating a rich sporting history is probably the way to go. Nobody can tell what you looked like 25 years ago, and if you tell people you used to be a world-renowned physicist, they're either going to ask you to prove it or ask you why you stopped being one.

Thirty years ago, it was a lot easier to get away with a good story, but you know what they say about sports? Anything's possible.

But what about Strassini? What's the story behind his story? My guess is he just wanted to be somebody. And he was, too, probably for far longer than even he expected.