Posts spread fake ESPN article after Brittney Griner's release

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Following Brittney Griner's release from a Russian prison, social media users are claiming ESPN mistakenly published a picture of former American football player Larry Fitzgerald in an article about the women's basketball star. But the image is altered; ESPN did not use Fitzgerald's photo in its report on Griner's return to the US, a spokesman for the sports network confirmed.

"Somebody from ESPN is getting fired over this stunt," says a December 8, 2022 Facebook post and tweet from Derek Brunson, a professional mixed martial artist.

The posts were among the earliest to share what appears to be a screenshot from ESPN's website, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool. Similar posts -- some with thousands of interactions -- spread across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.

The claims come after Griner, a WNBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was released from a Russian prison on December 8 in exchange for an arms dealer imprisoned in the US. Griner had spent almost 10 months detained in Russia after being arrested on drug charges in February.

Griner, who is 6-foot-9 (2.06 meters), came out as a lesbian in 2013 and became the first openly gay athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Nike. She has long faced attacks about her gender, sexuality and body -- including false claims that she is a man.

The posts circulating online are also misinformation; they show an image of an ESPN report that was altered to insert the picture of Fitzgerald, a former star wide receiver with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals.

"This was a fabrication," Andy Hall, director of communications for ESPN's news platforms, said in an email to AFP. "At no point did ESPN use a photo of Larry Fitzgerald with this story."

Screenshot from Facebook taken December 12, 2022
Screenshot from taken December 12, 2022



The real December 8 article -- headlined "Brittney Griner freed in U.S.- Russia prisoner exchange" -- includes a video in which ESPN personalities Stephen A. Smith and Molly Qerim talk with reporter TJ Quinn about Griner's release. The network also embedded a tweet from US President Joe Biden and a video of Griner boarding an airplane home.

Archived versions of the report indicate it never included the picture of Fitzgerald shared online. The photo was taken in 2010 at an event in Phoenix, Arizona, reverse image searches show.

Screenshot taken December 12, 2022 of a Getty Images photo of Larry Fitzgerald from 2010
Screenshot taken December 10, 2022 of a Getty Images photo of Brittney Griner from 2021



AFP has fact-checked other manipulated image of news articles here and here.