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A long hard day in the rumor mill

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The sports-industrial complex has produced a cottage industry which turned into a for-profit religion. What's the worst that could happen?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s one thing that ties pretty much every journalistic – or quasi-journalistic – field together, it’s rumors.

For politics, it’s hearsay about Supreme Court selections and running mates after the nomination fights. In movies and TV, speculation about the latest character to be whitewashed or poorly cast in the biggest blockbuster of that week. And the entire Technorati exists as a distribution mechanism for mechanical specifications of the newest, bestest thing – or at least the first version of the newest, bestest thing -- available at some undetermined time in the future.

Journalists, like they do with "Will John Farrell be fired?" stories, need to get people a clickin’ and a readin’ and we (the people) need to be satiated with information about possible pieces in our favorites team’s roster puzzle to prevent us from thinking too hard about the mystery that is life. It does make one (or, okay, me) wonder one thing, however:

What exactly makes stories about people we don’t know possibly moving to towns where we won’t watch them in exchange for other guys who we will probably watch now because they’re on our team literally the most popular thing on the #sporpsinternet at any given time? The love of rumors is something that -- like money in election years or water on pavement – gets into every crack and crevice of our online interaction with media. And it’s bananas popular, y’all.

The most remarkable part of the entire endeavor is that sports – both of the scripted and unscripted variety – and its accompanying fourth estate are where rumors and their mongers have turned a byproduct of sports-industrial complex manufacturing into the driving force behind profitability in the sector. Which is a fancy way of saying "people really love the shit out of rumors and will read pretty much anything with Rumor in the headline". There’s nothing wrong with this – or at least nothing worth getting preachy about.

How it got there is obvious or, perhaps more accurately, so seminal to the idea of sports fandom that it largely resists deconstruction. Trades and new signings have been important to fans since the beginning of time because team construction is perhaps the strongest form of brand identity in the known universe. It’s relatively unsurprising when someone knows the No. 2 man on the 1978 Boston Red Sox – and not just if they watched that one episode of Sports Night – but if you ask the same person who the vice president was at the time, you’ll probably get a snide remark or blank stare. But that doesn’t mean we don’t pray to the sports gods every day for just a little bit of heresy regarding our favorite teams.

The popularity of websites across the sports and sports entertainment spectrum like MLBTraderumors and the Wrestling Observer Newsletter is a testament to the Church of Rumorology. These sites, despite what some might call "serious aesthetic deficiencies and a not particularly friendly user experience" are able to keep afloat – and presumably do very well for themselves – based entirely on the resell value of backstage chatter and speculation. But it’s not just rumor mills that are dipping in the trough.

Pretty much anyone who comes into contact with these kinds of stories ends up doing pretty well for themselves. Just last week, on this very site, a piece about a possible trade involving Pablo Sandoval and a gift basket of prospects and players from San Diego did about as well as anything has done all month. During the first month of the season.

Cageside Seats daily "Rumor Roundup" – which, full disclosure, I wrote for a brief period – is the site’s most consistent performer outside of daily discussion threads (which exist essentially as meeting places for the entirety of the CSS community, and aren’t in/of themselves "new" content,) for precisely this reason. That the rumors about the future of the Vaudevillains or Roman Reigns aren’t probably true matters about as much as the chances of Pablo making his way to the Padres for those players does to the people (myself included) who read it. Which is to say, it didn’t matter, not at all.

That it involved a player none of us really loved, going to a team that isn’t direct competion for us did. Because rumors, and our love for them in particular, is far less about the rumors themselves than it is about how they fit into our perception of the principals involved. If we don’t like a player, or if we want a player, trade rumors function in largely the same way that "fantasy booking" does for wrestling fans: a means of escapism that exists just close enough to the edge of plausible to feel feasible through sheer force of will. This is based on, at least presumably given the way that many fans expect these things to happen, a strong belief in the power of the self-help book The Secret.

And there’s absolutely, positively nothing wrong or shameful about that. It’s a natural consequence of the information age, where we are taught to think in terms of systems and the affect variables have on them. This, fused at the hip with our obsession over fantasy – see: last week’s column – and the electronic attachment to news in nearly every form being pushed directly into our hand– see: a few weeks ago’s column – has made this kind of reporting a near physical necessity for any fan or journalist worth their salt.But the most important thing to remember about all of these is that they should probably be taken with a grain of salt as well.