In late November, I received a call from a Covers editor who wanted to discuss the Sarah Phillips thread that appeared in the BTB Forum a week earlier.
The thread, which can be found here, featured plenty of posts by people expressing skepticism of Phillips, who penned the site’s most popular weekly column. Needless to say, Covers’ editorial staff wasn’t thrilled by the thread or my participation in it.
(Disclosure: I was a freelance writer for parent company Sports Direct from March 2011 until last month. I was “let go” for pursuing this story.)
At the beginning of the conversation, my tone was defensive and even combative. I believed wholeheartedly that Phillips was being deceptive and that she wasn’t who she said she was. While I had no proof, the evidence was mounting: the constantly changing pictures, her refusal to appear on videos or podcasts, a Facebook page that looked like a cell phone scam, a mysterious rise in her Twitter following, an Oregon State student profile (she said she attended the University of Oregon), and so on.
“I’m asking the same questions that everybody’s asking,” I told the editor. “I’m asking the questions that you guys should be asking. How can you not see this?”
The editor reassured me that Phillips’s story checked out and that questions surrounding her character and integrity were unfounded. The pictures? “She’s self conscious.” Her address? “We mail her checks.” The school? “She lives in Corvallis.”
I turned apologetic by the end of the conversation.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
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A few days later, on Nov. 30, a 2,112-word email arrived in the BTB inbox from someone claiming to have developed a close personal relationship with Phillips. They began as friends but quickly became enemies, as Phillips made threats and even tried to extort money.
“I was scared for my life and became paranoid,” the emailer wrote.
A few days later, I spoke with the emailer for an hour by phone and believed him to be credible. He expressed an interest in remaining anonymous and I assured him that I wouldn’t divulge his identity.
“Let’s be patient,” he said.
About 10 days later, he gave me the go-ahead to contact Covers. While he wasn’t concerned about his safety at that point—”I really don’t care anymore,” he said—I took it upon myself to be concerned for him.
On the morning of Dec. 11, I wrote an email to a Sports Direct editor and set up a phone conversation for later that afternoon. We spoke for roughly 30 minutes, and the editor told me he’d contact the proper people at Covers to make them aware of the situation.
Two Covers editors—including the managing editor—arranged to speak with Phillips the next day at around noontime. They planned to discuss the Facebook cell phone scam, among other things, and believed there was enough smoke to warrant questioning.
A day later, I was informed that Phillips resigned.
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You know who wasn’t informed that Phillips resigned? Covers readers, the same ones who had been skeptical of Phillips from the very first day that she appeared on the site in early April 2011. I waited a day, then two days, then three days, then a week. Still nothing.
“How can they not disclose this with their readers?” I thought.
On Dec. 19, I sent the following e-mail to a Covers editor:
Hey, sort of unrelated (and sort of none of my business), but I was wondering if you’ve had any contact with ESPN re: SJP. I have contemplated contacting Lynn Hoppes to see if he knows anything, and am curious if he knows of anything that I’ve been made aware of (as far as SJP ”cultivating” people, and then trying to extract money from them; in addition to other possible “scams.”)
Ethics aside, I don’t really care who or what SJP is, and who (or how many) people are writing her columns, making her picks, etc. But if she’s using her platforms to scam people, and if it could be prevented, then that’s my preference. If her story checks out and she’s clean, even better.
I received a terse nine-word response and was reminded that Phillips no longer writes for Covers.
In other words: “Not our problem anymore.”
I decided to write another e-mail later that day.
If she is going to use her popularity and platform to scam people, then I can’t let it occur, especially if I know of instances where she has done just that. While I don’t personally know the people who have been scammed by her, the last thing I want is to have a friend of mine or a visitor of the site fall into the same crap that others have.
Not to mention, I’m fairly certain ESPN would like to know if it has someone on payroll who has a questionable history and a lack of ethics. And again, if her story (or stories) check out, then that’s great. As I told [name redacted], I really, truly hope that they do. I doubt that they do, of course, but hey, I try to see the best in people … so you never know.
The sports betting industry (from an information standpoint, not a pick-selling standpoint) has turned a corner and I’m very pleased to see that. I think Covers has certainly contributed to that, as have some of the more national outlets — which includes ESPN, among others. But if SJP is who I think she is, and if she is going to try to use her position and platform to scam people … then that’s just yet another black eye for an industry that’s already perceived to be “rogue.”
In a column addressing the Phillips saga on Thursday, Covers managing editor Jon Campbell failed to disclose that he and a fellow editor planned to meet with the former freelancer the day she resigned. Again, they believed they had enough “smoke” to investigate further, and had a few questions they wanted to ask her.
Even though they presumably never got the opportunity to ask them, it would have been a nice gesture if Covers had contacted Lynn Hoppes and made him aware of their concerns. That’s not to excuse Hoppes or ESPN, as they were equally egregious and clearly failed in their hiring efforts.
But I can’t help but wonder if these most recent scams could have been prevented by a simple phone call back in December.
In that respect, I failed, too.
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Update #1 (11:07 a.m): Covers editor Ashton Grewal appeared on Toronto’s 590 The Fan Sunday morning and discussed the Sarah Phillips story, including some of the questions that came up prior to her resignation. You can listen to the audio here.
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Update #2 (11:27 a.m.): Below is the transcript of Grewal’s comments regarding the fishiness surrounding Phillips, as well as the questions that arised in the days leading up to her departure from Covers in early December.
“When she was writing for us, there were probably two things that caught our eye that kind of made us say, ‘Well, that seems kind of goofy.’ One, to begin with, was the pictures that she was submitting. The ones that started out with us [Host: "As a blonde"], and then later on it was something else. People can dye their hair and that type of thing, but it seemed to us a little fishy. So, you know, she defended herself quite a bit and we didn’t really think it was something that needed to be pushed at the time. But it was something of, ‘OK, is this person being completely honest with us,’ and that was early in the column.
“Then soon afterwards she was supplying pictures that were, I think, consistent anyway. Once she got on Twitter, she went from something like 2,000 followers to 10,000 to like 20,000 [Host: "She bought them"], yeah, and I don’t know. We had suspicions that something was kind of fishy there. So then, and her page views weren’t, I guess, continuing to go up. So we had, I guess, a little bit more reason, or I guess we weren’t as … the leash wasn’t as long I guess you might say, you know what I mean?
“So, you know, we heard something from a colleague of ours [BTB Note: read above] and, you know, we wanted to ask Sarah about that. And um, that was the first week of December. She hasn’t written for us since then. It wasn’t anything obscure. It wasn’t anything concrete or anything like that. And nothing like any of the scamming sort of things.”