A college pal’s efforts to learn German using the osmosis method of wearing an open book atop his head did not work. I, however, learned how to write by the osmosis method of reading Sports Illustrated magazine during my teenage years.

          The best sportswriters in the country presented weekly seminars in style, phrasing and even attitude. I read SI cover-to-cover. Six years of total immersion and I emerged an able writer. SI style was my style – fearless, accurate, maybe with a slight edge. Writing for SI was an early goal for that kid angling to become a sportswriter.

          Those heady days came to mind following Monday’s posting on Futurism’s website detailing SI’s apparent use of fake writers and articles that bear the mark of artificial intelligence.

          Instead of Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake and Tex Maule, who mentored me by example from afar, SI has posted articles attributed to Drew Ortiz, who except for SI, “doesn’t seem to exist,” Futurism reported. “He has no social media presence and no publishing history. And even more strangely, his profile photo on Sports Illustrated is for sale on a website that sells AI-generated headshots, where he’s described as ‘neutral white young-adult male with short brown hair and blue eyes.’”

          Ah, but Ortiz’s glorious achievement of reaching SI did not last. Futurism again:

          “Sometime this summer, for example, Ortiz disappeared from Sports Illustrated‘’s site entirely, his profile page instead redirecting to that of a ‘Sora Tanaka.’ Again, there’s no online record of a writer by that name — but Tanaka’s profile picture is for sale on the same AI headshot marketplace as Ortiz, where she’s listed as ‘joyful asian young-adult female with long brown hair and brown eyes.’”

          Alas, Futurism documented, “Tanaka didn’t last, either. Eventually she also disappeared, replaced by yet another profile that carried no headshot at all, which Sports Illustrated deleted along with the other AI-generated content after we reached out.

          “It wasn’t just author profiles that the magazine repeatedly replaced. Each time an author was switched out, the posts they supposedly penned would be reattributed to the new persona, with no editor’s note explaining the change in byline.”

          In its glory days, Sports Illustrated was one of the jewels in the crown of Time-Life’s publishing empire.

          Along with documenting every major (and most minor) sporting events of the previous week, the old SI offered in-depth articles and humorous features on a regular basis. There was Alex Kroll’s account of the first year of the New York Titans, whose shoe-string budget had broken laces. Alex Hawkins  provided a self-deprecating look at an NFL player doing any- and everything to stay in the game.

          Sports Illustrated tackled serous issues, too, such as the racial disharmony on the St. Louis Cardinals football team, my favorite team until they deserted for the desert.

          Reading SI incessantly taught me the Inverted Pyramid of good news writing before Bonnie Binford gave it a name in my first journalism class.

          (And, though Mrs. Binford explained that the no-holds-barred critiques of professional athletes that I had been reading were not suitable for high school reporting, that bite resurfaced when I had erring politicians in my sights.)

          Today SI is owned by The Arena Group.

          As might be expected, those pesky folks at Futurism looked at another of The Arena Group’s publications, TheStreet, and, “we found authors at TheStreet with highly specific biographies detailing seemingly flesh-and-blood humans with specific areas of expertise — but with profile photos traceable to that same AI face website. And like at Sports Illustrated, these fake writers are periodically wiped from existence and their articles reattributed to new names, with no disclosure about the use of AI.’

          The Arena Group responded that no material had been AI generated and cited AdVon Commerce as a third-party source for the stories, concluding: “we have learned that AdVon had writers use a pen or pseudo name in certain articles to protect author privacy — actions we don’t condone — and we are removing the content while our internal investigation continues and have since ended the partnership.”

          Futurism, with more old-fashioned investigative reporting, found two SI content workers willing to talk anonymously. One claimed that there are “a lot” of fake authors on their site and the other adding that there AI stories as well: “’The content is absolutely AI-generated,’ the second source said, ‘no matter how much they say that it’s not.’”

          Futurism’s exposé also included an example of “writing (that) often sounds like it was written by an alien; one Ortiz article, for instance, warns that volleyball, ‘can be a little tricky to get into, especially without an actual ball to practice with.’”

          No, Dan Jenkins never wrote a sentence like that. “The Glory Game at Goat Hill” was a nostalgic paean to public course golfers (he was one) who competed with each other in complicated betting games of golf set on and off the courses of Fort Worth. I kept that article for years just for the joy of rereading it. (And you should Google it as one of four free premium articles from the SI vault – even if you’re not a golfer.)

          A lot of intelligence. None of it artificial.

          It was Sports Illustrated that featured Bill Bowerman – of the original Nike waffled running shoe design – offering instructions on track events and Ted Williams explaining the best pitches to swing at. Bill Russell, the NBA’s greatest winner, told us how to psych out opponents.

          Russell’s Celtic teammate, Frank Ramsey – the league’s first acclaimed sixth man – gave inside basketball tips on getting a physical edge on the court. His advice, such as leaning into a defender while shooting to draw a foul, prompted outrage from free-lance moralists.

          (That crowd also denounced the first Swimsuit Editions – mothers canceling son’s subscriptions.  At that time, the photo shoot consisted of about eight pages or so, and those swimsuits covered a lot more of the models than in later years.)

          Jack Olsen’s riveting series on the “The Night of the Grizzlies” presented a true crime account of the night in 1967 that two people, miles apart, were killed by two different grizzly bears at Glacier National Park. It became a book and then a documentary.

          I don’t look for the work of either Drew Ortiz or Sora Tanaka to have that staying power – especially since it has been scrubbed from the SI site.

          Futurism offered two follow-up stories to its original posting. The headlines tell the tale: “Sports Illustrated Union Says It’s ‘Horrified’ by Publication of AI-Generated Writers” and “People Are Absolutely Roasting Sports Illustrated’s Ridiculous Excuse for its AI-Generated Writers.”

          And we can hope that aspiring young writers can find the inspiration to develop their voices as was possible many years ago during The Glory Days at Sports Illustrated.

          (Gary Edmondson is chair of the Stephens County Democratic Party.)

How the mighty have fallen

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