DENVER — The victims of the Bubba Wallace-NASCAR hate-crime hoax are, in no particular order:

Sports media's credibility. Social justice.

That’s it. That's the list.

Too many in sports media embarrassed themselves again. They cooked the credibility of this industry again. They willfully and instinctively ignored one of the first rules taught in college journalism courses again: Never. Assume. Anything.

They assumed everything. They assumed Wallace, who is sponsored by Air Force, was the victim of a hate crime at Talladega Superspeedway. A crew member with Richard Petty Motorsports told NASCAR officials he found a noose in Wallace's garage. Sports media assumed with certainty this was a real crime and Wallace was the target. They ran with a sensational story before a single fact had been investigated or confirmed. They were wrong.

"Although the noose is now known to have been in garage number 4 in 2019, nobody could have known Mr. Wallace would be assigned to garage number 4 last week," the FBI said.

The agency added: "After a thorough review of the facts and evidence surrounding this event, we have concluded that no federal crime was committed."

I’m no journalism expert. Half the time during this pandemic I wake up in the morning freaked out by what I'm going to write. The other half I wonder if or when the furlough call is coming. But it doesn't take a J-school degree to study and interpret the facts before forming an opinion — especially in a case as emotionally charged and heinous as a potential hate crime.

The episode with Wallace at Talladega reminds of the episode with NFL star Michael Bennett in Las Vegas which reminds of the graffiti LeBron James said was on his home. On each occasion, mainstream sports media mistakenly assumed the athlete was a victim of racial injustice long before the facts came out.

And who does that hurt in the end?

Sports media's credibility and social justice.

None of this is to say racism doesn't exist. Of course it exists. And the next time there’s a valid example in sports, you know what the reaction from the general public is going to be?

Suuuure. Like that time with Bubba Wallace?

If you are an advocate for social justice, a screw-up like the Wallace episode should be infuriating. It's delegitimizing actual racist acts. It's triggering eye rolls. It's the sports version of the men and women who cried wolf.

Wallace has the best kind of support around these hills. He once parachuted into Daytona International Speedway with the award-winning Air Force Wings of Blue. He's flown in Air Force fighter jets. His No. 43 car scored a striking paint scheme like the A-10 Warthog. 

But mainstream sports media have created their own biggest problem, and the parachutes are going quick. That problem is not hedge-fund ownership, declines in ad revenue, skeleton newsrooms, President Trump’s tweets, the Internet or subscription fatigue. The biggest problem is a lack of trust from the readers and viewers it’s supposed to serve. A recent Gallup poll showed Americans trust hospitals, schools, their employer and the president more than they trust media. What's left of sports media's credibility crashed, again, at Talladega.

A solid chunk of you good people don’t believe what you read, see or hear from mainstream sports media. And you know what?

Too often these days I can't blame you.

(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at paul.klee@gazette.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)

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