Hello, it's your friendly neighborhood Bad Owl, here to talk to you about Brett McMurphy, who has torpedoed his journalistic reputation over the last few months.
I know that there is another thread going on, but I wanted to dive into another angle of this story – its actual journalist merits, and how McMurphy constructed and reported this story. (Spoiler: Poorly!)
I defended McMurphy for a while during the initial Zach Smith saga – and became public enemy number one around here because of it – but as that saga went on, it became clear that his reporting was done in bad faith and he was acting unethically. This isn't to say that Jeff Snook's work was flawless by any means (Facebook publishing means zero editorial oversight), or that Zach Smith is at all vindicated in my eyes (he's an immature manchild who never should have been employed by Ohio State), but I digress – McMurphy clearly isn't adhering to actual journalistic standards. His latest work is the best (worst) example of that.
Not going to go line-by-line, here, but we can certainly break this down. Let's check out his sources for the latest exposé and how, exactly, he's building his story.
Multiple sources told @WatchStadium that Urban Meyer helped cover up a racially-charged practice altercation b/w former assistant Zach Smith & former Buckeye Trevon Grimes in 2017. Ohio State admits interaction b/w Smith & Grimes, but denies racial slur https://t.co/SErLV2UZeU
— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) November 13, 2018
First, while his tweet promoting the story isn't actually the story, social media users tend to read headlines/tweets and react based off of those, rather than actually reading and digesting a story and then reacting. According to the way he is framing his own piece, one would expect the reporting to show that Urban played some kind of central role in the story. That's not exactly what happens.
“Thank you sir for your interest in my son’s story. … I’m sure Trevon will be honored to have you write a story on him. However, as his FATHER I can’t wait for that one reporter who cares about the TRUTH and where we came from!!”
The first graph of this story is a quote from Trevon Grimes' father, LeBron. Positioning it here gives it more weight than any subsequent quotes from any other sources.
So what exactly is the TRUTH? Everyone has their version.
My favorite niche phrase of 2018 is "JAQ-ing off" – 'Just Asking Questions' being used as a bad-faith tactic to sew seeds of doubt in more reputable sources. This is precisely what's being done here, as McMurphy proceeds to dive headfirst into hearsay, always giving Grimes' father the benefit of the doubt despite him being the worst possible source.
Those parties: a convicted felon, a nurse who committed fraud and stole thousands of dollars from a dying elderly couple, and one of the nation’s most powerful college football coaches who hasn’t been entirely truthful in the past, especially when dealing with a disgraced assistant coach
The felon is Grimes' father. Notice that he doesn't go into details there, keeping it vague, but dives into details when referring to the nurse, Grimes' mother, and again teasing a large role for Urban Meyer that never quite comes to fruition.
On Sept. 26, 2017, Trevon Grimes, then a freshman wide receiver at Ohio State, called his father. “He was in tears,” LeBron said in a lengthy sit-down interview with Stadium in New Port Richey, Florida. “My heart was crushed.”
Over the next few hours, LeBron detailed his son’s departure from Ohio State and the “toxic” environment that led to it.
Skipping a few graphs here, but to this point, LeBron Grimes is the only source used in the story. His side of the story is framed as the accurate one. He's positioned as someone who would know all of the details.
The next few paragraphs detail conversions that LeBron Grimes recalls having with Urban Meyer and Zach Smith. While Zach Smith, is, in my opinion, a whiny piece of shit, he denies ever having that conversation. McMurphy makes that distinction, but does not specify whether or not Urban (or Ohio State) denies it, either.
I went to Gainesville, Florida, to speak with Trevon Grimes. After a September practice, I specifically asked him about the altercation and also Smith’s alleged use of the N-word. He answered both questions the same: “I have no comment on that.”
However, three of Grimes’ current Florida teammates, who would only talk on the condition of anonymity, said that Grimes has told them about the altercation in practice at Ohio State and Smith’s alleged use of the N-word.
Trevon would not comment. LeBron said that it happened. Anonymous Florida players, who were not present, also said that Trevon mentioned the incident and that word being used.
Jaylen Harris, through the university, gave McMurphy a statement refuting that the incident went down that way. McMurphy publishes this statement, but then presents more hearsay evidence from one of LeBron Grimes' friends saying that Harris had told him that a racial slur was used by Zach Smith at practice.
For those keeping track at home, the only people who say that it was a physical altercation with a racial slur are:
- LeBron Grimes, saying that Trevon Grimes told him
- LeBron Grimes' friend, saying that Jaylen Harris told him that Trevon Grimes had told him
- Anonymous Florida players, saying that Trevon Grimes had told them
Meanwhile, Trevon Grimes himself wouldn't go on the record. Harris issued a quote saying it didn't happen. Eli Goins gave the following quote:
Eli Goins, a senior wide receiver at Ohio State last season, said he witnessed the altercation at practice that players had to “break up” but did not hear Smith use the N-word
So, three on-the-record quotes from people who were there (Smith, Goins and Harris) plus quotes from Gene Smith and Jerry Emig, aren't given the weight that LeBron Grimes and his friend's quotes are.
From there, McMurphy spends the rest of the story diving into the Grimes family and Trevon's transfer, spilling details of the NCAA waiver and going into detail about Grimes' mother's illness. While those details are in the NCAA waiver – and thus are a part of public record – publishing them is wholly unnecessary to the story any reputable journalist would have left those details out.
The reason for the visit? Again, it depends whom you ask.
Gene Smith: “Coach Meyer and others went to support Leah Grimes and Trevon on Monday, Oct. 9, an off day for our (players) because Leah was struggling with her health and they were going through a very stressful time.”
Emig, OSU’s spokesman: “Coach (Meyer) is very close with Leah and she and Trevon were struggling with news of her cancer. They went then to show support for her and Trevon. Coach also contacted the James Cancer Center that week to put her in touch with their doctors.”
LeBron Grimes, who was not in town that day: “Trevon threatened them (to go public with the altercation and alleged racial slur) like Zach threatened Trevon (at Ohio State).”
Bolded emphasis is my own. Then, McMurphy goes on to say:
If the altercation became public, it could possibly damage Ohio State’s and Meyer’s ability to recruit, especially at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, where Meyer signed elite stars at both Florida and Ohio State, including Nick and Joey Bosa.
On one hand, this is pure speculation by McMurphy. On another, far more sinister hand (likely the left hand), this supposition implies that LeBron's version of what happened at a meeting which he did not attend is the correct version of events.
So, LeBron is clearly the brick upon which McMurphy is choosing to build his story. By the words of every other source in the story, he's not a valid source.
Let's take a look at what everyone else has to say about McMurphy's star witness:
On Sept. 18, Will Pantages, the University of Florida’s football spokesman, called me and said Trevon Grimes, whom I had interviewed eight days earlier in Gainesville, asked that I stop trying to contact his mother.
Pantages then added that Trevon knew I had spoken to his father LeBron and said, “Don’t believe anything he tells you,” and also that he had not “seen or talked to his father in more than two years.”
LeBron goes on to suggest that Leah Grimes faked her cancer (!) to get the NCAA hardship waiver so that Trevon could transfer to Florida. Let's hear Leah's side, which McMurphy includes in the article but only after giving LeBron ample platform:
"If my ex-husband is the person spreading these rumors, everyone should know that neither I nor TreVon have any contact with him whatsoever. He knows nothing about my health and nothing about TreVon’s transfer to UF. He is an abuser and the worst kind of role model, and he is no longer in TreVon’s life."
Emphasis is mine.
LeBron's allegation that Leah faked her cancer to get Trevon a transfer waiver is treated by McMurphy as a valid one, despite him not talking to her for years and therefore not knowing that she had become ill in the first place.
Two sources say that Trevon and LeBron don't talk. McMurphy uses LeBron's phone records to show two short phone calls at another date as evidence to the contrary. Neither were on the day of the incident – or longer than eight minutes.
Beyond that – McMurphy is still trying to paint the picture of Urban Meyer as someone who enabled Zach Smith, using the testimony of LeBron Grimes, who is, according to his ex-wife, an abuser!
Between 2011 and 2015, LeBron was the defendant in two domestic violence cases with two different women: his step-sister and Leah Grimes, according to the Broward County Court of Clerks. Each case was dismissed and he was not convicted or found liable.
In 1999, LeBron was arrested in Broward County for battery on a community college security officer and theft of less than $300. He also was charged for theft between $100 and $300, according to the Broward County Court of Clerks.
In 1994, when he was 22, he was arrested for possession and selling cocaine, according to court records in Marion County, Indiana. He also pled guilty to cocaine possession in 2004 in Marion Superior Court in Indiana.
“It’s true I sold drugs when I was younger and it landed me a trip to prison,” LeBron said. “But I am a truthful and stand-up guy. They can never say I’m a liar.”
It's unclear here why McMurphy would publish that quote at the end for any reason other than to position his source as valid despite his criminal record. Not sure any other writer would include that quote. Even with that quote, it's clear that LeBron Grimes is not a valid source upon which to build a bombshell story.
On Nov. 2, Leah filed and received a “temporary injunction for protection against domestic violence with minor child” against LeBron. LeBron volunteered a copy of the protection order, which was filed with the Broward County Clerk of Courts.
Leah, 43, also has had her share of past legal issues.
McMurphy then goes on to talk about Leah Grimes having her nursing license revoked, and says that court documents show that she committed fraud in her role as a nurse.
Obviously, Leah Grimes had declined to comment beyond her statement, so she was *technically* given a similar chance to give a quote like the one we saw above from LeBron. If anything, that serves as more of a reason to not include LeBron's quote.
And yet, despite that, immediately after going out of his way to portray Leah as a non-credible source (despite her nursing license being re-instated eight years ago and her being gainfully employed in that field since), he then lets LeBron have the last word:
“I knew there was a lot of covering up. Trevon just wanted to play ball, whatever story they wrote up,” LeBron said. “I looked at him and I was like, ‘Wow.’ Not one person ever questioned the truth.
“If Urban says it, people say it’s true. Urban is more powerful than the truth. No one questioned it. I didn’t want to be part of (it) because I knew it wasn’t true.”
The story is positioned as Urban's role in some kind of a cover-up, but the only source who brings Urban into this is a convicted felon who, according to multiple other sources, doesn't have a relationship with the player at the center of this.
What is the truth? It depends whom you ask.
McMurphy ends with some more JAQ-ing Off.
There is such thing as objective truth – it never 'depends on who you ask' – and journalists aren't just supposed to vomit out quotes in bad faith like this.
The weirdest thing here is that it's clear that McMurphy did a lengthy vetting of his sources, going in-depth into LeBron Grimes' criminal history and Leah Grimes' issues as well. But he gives credence to just one of those sources while trying to de-legitimize the other, and frames that source's version of events as the crux of the entire story.
Finally, while this is clearly bad journalism, I want to be clear that good journalism both exists and is abundantly easy to find. Just not if you're reading Brett McMurphy's work.
I'd also like to give an opinion here that reporters' personal biases don't create bad journalism, rather, it's a willingness to violate basic journalistic and editorial standards in order to fit those biases that does.