Aug 19, 2023; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) looks on against the New York Jets during the second half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Update: On Tuesday, Pete Smith announced on the social media platform X that he had been let go by Sports Illustrated for “running a story that wasn’t accurate.”

On Monday morning, Sports Illustrated‘s Cleveland Browns site, Browns Digest, ran a story about Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield taking a not-so-subtle dig at his former team and its coaches.

“This is only the second time in my pro career that I’ve had a coaching staff that lets me play to my full potential. [Sean] McVay understood what I’m capable of but no one else before that did,” was the quote that Kevin Grandheer posted to the social media platform X.

The only problem? Kevin Grandheer isn’t actually an NFL reporter. And Baker Mayfield never actually said that quote.

Nevertheless, Browns Digest ran a story based entirely on the fake quote from a fake reporter. The story has since been unpublished, but the headline was still showing up in Google searches as of Monday morning. The page, which initially brought up a 404 error after the story was pulled, now links to a new and unrelated story, while an article based on the same fake quote remains published on the SI-owned sports blog, The Spun.

There are also several replies to a now-deleted post by Browns Digest writer Pete Smith informing him that Grandheer is not a legitimate source.

How does this happen?

While it would be easy to blame the mess that Elon Musk has made with blue check mark verifications, the reality remains that there are some red flags with Grandheer’s account that are pretty easy to spot. In particular, while Grandheer claims to be a “beat writer,” his X bio doesn’t list an affiliate. And his timeline consists of a mix of fake news and trolling — albeit often times believably worded — fake quotes.

It would be fair to question the editorial process and/or standards of the Sports Illustrated team sites, which have been no stranger to controversy under the direction of SI operator The Arena Group (formerly known as Maven). In 2020, multiple sources told Awful Announcing that Maven’s general manager (sports) Scott Kennedy told channel staffers to get conversations in the “community” tab of their channels going and encouraged them to create burner accounts to do so if necessary. The company also continued to employ a Houston Texans writer months after first learning he had previously pled guilty to a felony involving improper relations between an educator and a student.

While the formatting and design of the S.I. fan sites used to mirror the main Sports Illustrated website, there has since been a shift to differentiate the fan sites, which appear under the “Fan Nation” umbrella. Still, many of the fan site stories wind up on the main Sports Illustrated website. And a Google search for the Mayfield story returned what appeared to be a link.

Baker Mayfield Sports Illustrated Fake Quote Story
A screen grab of a now-broken link to a story based on a fake Baker Mayfield quote.

At this point, it would be fair to wonder if Sports Illustrated is trying to have it both ways by absolving itself of the content on its fan sites while also benefitting from the traffic. If that’s the case, then in this particular situation, the strategy seems to have had the opposite effect, with the Browns site instead bringing embarrassment to the bigger brand.

At the very least, Browns Digest wasn’t the only one to fall for the fake quote. It was also discussed on 92.3 The Fan’s Baskin & Phelps on Monday morning.

[Greg Auman on X]

About Ben Axelrod

Ben Axelrod is a veteran of the sports media landscape, having most recently worked for NBC's Cleveland affiliate, WKYC. Prior to his time in Cleveland, he covered Ohio State football and the Big Ten for outlets including Cox Media Group, Bleacher Report, Scout and Rivals.