Olivia Dunne and Baby Gronk

Jake San Miguel’s claim – that the likes of LSU and Alabama are aggressively recruiting his 10-year-old son – is so obviously absurd that it is, in effect, self-rebutting. Which is why for the five years that Baby Gronk’s 325,000-follower Instagram page has existed, San Miguel had – until early June – remained mostly unknown to all but the most terminally online. But even for those in the know, Baby Gronk has been easy to dismiss as little more than social media marketing ouroboros: selfies with NFL players begetting more digital clout, begetting more selfies with NFL players.

And yet, all it took was a series of barely comprehensible and debatably satirical TikTok videos going viral for San Miguel to get traction in The Athletic. Yes, The Athletic! The subsidiary of the New York Times and erstwhile savior of old-fashioned, beat-focused sports journalism. That Athletic.

All the more notable, then, that the college football recruiting media – with its decentralized networks of reporters and, let’s say, somewhat lower editorial standards than the Times – has, for the most part, decided to sit this one out entirely. They haven’t even weighed in to dismiss Baby Gronk as an illegitimate topic or to pile on a competitor for giving San Miguel undeserved publicity.

Among the big recruiting services, 247Sports and Rivals have written zero stories about Baby Gronk. On3 has created a NIL profile for Baby Gronk on the back of Jake San Miguel’s claims that his social media feed has generated $100,000 in annual revenue, and they aggregated J.J. Watt’s criticisms of the 10-year-old’s intense training regimen. But neither service has come anywhere close to treating Baby Gronk as a legitimate prospect, even to dismissing out of hand the question of whether he is one. Not even to get a piece of viral news traffic in the notoriously sluggish month of June – a thought that would have been unimaginable as recently as 2017.

Why is that?

The Baby Gronk story is a major reputational risk for a hoax-prone recruiting industry

In February 2019, Blake Carringer was added to the Rivals.com recruiting database as a 6’6, 310-pound offensive tackle from Knoxville, claiming offers from Alabama and Florida, among others. Noticing the addition of Carringer to the Rivals.com player database, 247Sports added Carringer to its own database and gave him a three-star 247Sports Composite score based on the star rating assigned by Rivals.

The only problem with all this is that Blake Carringer did not exist. And all it seems to have taken to get a 247 player profile and a three-star rating was a few disingenuous tweets claiming fake scholarship offers made to an equally fake player. The whole scenario was a big black eye for the recruiting industry, adding fuel to the fire of reader complaints that dubious claims of offers from Alabama carried more weight in setting a player’s rating than actual evaluations.

In my six years at 247Sports, I sat in on several deliberations of the 247Sports Ratings Council. Every time I observed their conversations, I came away with the impression that I was watching a talented and thoughtful group of people motivated by little more than a sincere commitment to getting their rankings right. But debating the merits of bumping a four-star up to a five- is a much different problem than the tedious database management work of adding the thousands and thousands of two- and three-star players and seeing that their offers, measurements, and commitments stay up-to-date.

It would be virtually impossible for a player to fake his way into a five-star ranking, but the industry had developed very few antibodies to help it reject someone pretending to be a ho-hum two- or three-star player. It was this vulnerability that the tricksters behind the Carringer hoax were able to exploit.

After the Carringer incident, 247Sports stopped giving players composite scores before they’d been evaluated by 247 itself. And in a recent story examining its own efforts to insulate itself from future hoaxes, 247Sports wrote that, during COVID, “players began fudging heights and weights more often when college coaches and recruiting sites could not evaluate them in person as easily.” In response, “247Sports imposed stricter verification requirements for anyone who updates a player’s height or weight” requiring “photographic evidence … if not an in-person evaluation.”

To 247Sports’ credit, these tactics appear to have been effective. This is not to say that the fraudsters aren’t still out there. But when it came to the biggest recruiting-adjacent hoax of all time, Bishop Sycamore, it was the multinational behemoth Walt Disney Company, not the recruiting sites, who got duped.

The risk, for recruiting sites, of covering Baby Gronk at all

In running their Q&A with San Miguel, the Athletic provided a case study in the downside risk associated with covering Baby Gronk at all  – especially for outlets holding themselves out as reliable reporters of recruiting information. My read on what went wrong with the Q&A is that Ari Wasserman and his editors clearly saw through San Miguel’s grift (namely, creating the deliberately false impression that San Miguel was being aggressively courted by elite college football programs, rather than merely attending camps open to any member of the public who is willing to pay) but nevertheless saw an opportunity to latch on to a trending topic and, perhaps, to siphon off some of the search and social traffic it was generating.

Wasserman thought the skeptical tone of his questions would be sufficient to help readers see what he saw: that San Miguel was running a con. But the subtext wasn’t loud enough, the message got muddled, and the net result was the Athletic giving San Miguel a bigger microphone to tell his lie.

In the past, other outlets might have fallen into a similar trap. In the mid-2010s, 247Sports was running what some have called a business in the front, party in the back strategy: presenting its buttoned-down recruiting coverage to its hardcore, ultra-niche message board audience, while catering to a broader audience through Facebook and search. While that ethos lives on to some degree in the operation Shannon Terry now runs at On3 (the employee who wrote On3’s Baby Gronk story recently published a story summarizing a Conor McGregor Instagram post), 247Sports has been given explicit instructions from parent company CBS Sports to, as one 247 employee told me, “stay in our lane.”

Translation: stick to recruiting, and stay away from viral news.

This tracks with a broader trend in the media industry, amid the collapse of viral news traffic and the fracturing of social media. Readers are turning away from giant media companies that cover everything at the surface level and turning toward smaller, more trusted voices that cover a smaller range of topics more deeply. Six years ago this month, the 247Sports Twitter feed that I helped program would be filled with stories about the NBA Finals and Baby Gronk, whereas in June 2023 it’s just coverage of Elite 11 and the Transfer Portal.

Part of what’s strange about the Baby Gronk story is the way it feels caught between two different eras of the internet. On the one hand, it’s a story designed to exploit the disinformation vulnerabilities of social news coverage during Web 2.0. On the other hand, it looks forward to a future when NIL takes up evermore space in college football news.

At the time of the Blake Carringer hoax, the player’s fake Twitter profile was not an end in itself. There was no profit motive for the perpetrator. All they wanted to do, as far as anyone can tell, is make a point about how easy it would be to make a three-star recruit out of thin air. Success or failure was contingent upon Rivals, 247Sports, or ESPN taking the bait.

But even without successfully duping the recruiting industry, Jake San Miguel appears to have won – that is, if his claims of $100,000 in annual sponsorship revenue are to be believed. And this may point the way forward for imitators who aren’t quite so obviously running a con.

One might have thought that NIL value was downstream of actual, on-the-field value to college football programs. But what Baby Gronk demonstrates is that there isn’t a 1:1 relationship between those propositions, and maybe indeed no relationship at all. In this case, the antibodies the recruiting industry has developed against these stories could prove to be totally useless. Because, as it turns out, it’s possible to game Instagram’s algorithm without the help of the recruiting media.

Awful Announcing reached out to On3 to ask if they were worried that, by adding Baby Gronk to their player database, they risked damaging their reputation as a reliable source of recruiting news. As of this writing, On3 has not returned our request for comment.