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Bishop Sycamore and Confidence Tricks in Sports

ESPN logo and building are shown in down town Los Angeles, California (Mike Blake/Reuters)

There’s a crazy story out right now about how ESPN was duped into putting a fake high-school football team on national TV. The school calls itself Bishop Sycamore, and they played IMG Academy, an actual high-school football powerhouse, on Sunday. “Played” might be too strong a word — they got routed 58–0, and IMG was letting up for most of the second half.

Bishop Sycamore claims to be an online school in Columbus, Ohio, but “there’s no address on the website, and the ‘About Us’ and ‘Staff’ pages on the site are blank,” according to the Columbus Dispatch. The school was not registered with the Ohio High School Athletic Association. It didn’t have the Division I talent it claimed to have, and some of the players were as old as 20 and had played junior-college games.

There’s a long history of confidence tricks in sports. Plenty of athletes have lied about their age or qualifications to compete at a higher level, especially in the days before national media. It seems in this particular instance, there was a nasty underside of whoever runs the Bishop Sycamore operation lying and taking advantage of young people. But many other confidence tricks are just fun bits of sports lore that make for good storytelling later on.

One such case is that of NASCAR “driver” L. W. Wright. He entered the 1982 Winston 500 at Talladega and claimed sponsorship from country-music stars Merle Haggard and T. G. Sheppard. He claimed to be an experienced driver and got almost $40,000 from a Nashville businessman to fund his team. He bought a car for around $20,000 from actual driver Sterling Marlin and called his team Music City Racing. He paid for his NASCAR license and access passes and qualified 36th in the 40-car field. He completed just 13 of the 188 laps before his engine gave out, and he finished 39th.

And then, he was never seen again. Haggard and Sheppard didn’t know who he was and learned of their supposed sponsorship from the newspaper. Wright, if that was even his real name, had never been in a NASCAR race at any level before. All the checks he wrote were bad. And despite a criminal investigation and multiple private investigations launched to bring him to justice, he has never been found or seen since the end of that Talladega race in 1982.

You can read more about it here or here, and NASCAR did a documentary-style video on YouTube here.

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