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What we can learn from The New York Times football hoax...What We Can Learn From a 1941 Football Hoax...

"How to Lie with Statistics," written in 1954, and a standard college text for the introduction to statistics, offers a lot of useful warnings about numbers: Correlation does not imply causation, how statistical graphs can be used to distort reality, and so on. But Morris Newburger, a respected Wall Street broker and avid football fan, went one better.

Newburger may have never believed that there was a Slippery Rock State Teachers College, but, as Bob Busch also notes, there was (and is) one. It's in the Pennsylvania mountains, and has been there for longer than a century. Which bring Substance readers to the classic Chicago reminder (from the City New Bureau): "If your mother says she loves you, check it out!" Forget the Quarterback Sneak: A Deception Play for the Ages, appearing on A1 of the New York Times sports section, January 16, 2016, recounts Newburger's 1941 football scores hoax. For those of us who care about the way school data is thrown around in the media, Newburger's hoax has a very modern ring to it: Newspapers reported the numbers without seeing the game.

The story becomes How the Press Gets Duped by Statistics.

Legendary sports writer (who also wrote prize-winning childrens books and co-authored Dick Gregorys Nigger) Robert Lipsyte wrote about this hoax in the New York Times, September 26, 1968.

A sports fan, Newburger never quite believed all the football scores he read in the newspaper. He never really believed, for example, in the existence of Slippery Rock State Teachers College whose scores were dutifully recorded in the New York Times

And so he came up with the idea of Plainfield Teachers State Teachers College, whose weekly scores he and a friend called in to the papers. Here's Lipsyte on what happened:

Morris Newburger's first dupe--and now his wittiest chronicler--was Harold Rosenthal, who is on the staff of the American Football League. On Saturday evening, Oct. 15, 1941, Rosenthal was on the harried sports rewrite desk of The New York Herald Tribune. A man called with a small-college football score: Plainfield Teachers 27, Winona 3.

"Plainfield Teachers, that a New Jersey school?"

"Yes," said Morris Newburger.

Rosenthal explained years later that it was "not uncommon for the smallest schools to telephone their scores because of a lack of telegraph facilities. Also a number of small schools took up and dropped football continually so it was hard to keep up with them all.

That first Plainfield Teachers College score appeared in The Tribune and in The New York Times.

Energized by this initial success, Newburger kept calling in weekly scores -- and he began issuing press releases on Plainfield Teachers College letterhead -- extolling the talents of Johnny Chung, a 6-foot-3, 212-pound halfback who was half-Chinese, half-Hawaiian who ate wild rice at halftime.

Soon, newspapers went beyond reporting the weekly scores. Columnists began writing about the team -- and about Johnny Chung.

The obvious parallel these days is the hoo-ha invented about schools. How many classrooms have members of the New York Times editorial board visited? For how many minutes?

How about Thomas Friedman?

David Brooks?

Frank Bruni?

But they can all tell you about the public school equivalent of 6-foot-3, 212-pound Johnny Chung eating wild rice at halftime.

Beware of numbers traveling as solutions. . . or even as descriptors.



Comments:

January 18, 2016 at 8:18 AM

By: Bob Busch

Penn.

My high school biology teacher was a graduate of Slippery Rock Teachers College.

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