This story appears in the 2018 Body Issue. Subscribe to ESPN The Magazine today!
Behind the scenes at the Senior Bowl weigh-in, the moment of truth is at hand. It’s just after dawn on a Tuesday in late January, and already the massive South Exhibit Hall of the Mobile Convention Center in Alabama is packed with NFL personnel types, clipboards at the ready. Meanwhile, on the other side of the pageant-style stage, players are pacing around in the dark, in various stages of undress, when Titans scout Mike Boni pokes his head through the curtains to offer instructions about one of the most bizarre yet necessary events in sports.
As he speaks, the players try not to stare at the shiny metal carpenter’s square in Boni’s right hand. But they know that this simple tool Boni picked up for $6.99 at an Ace Hardware has measured the height of every NFL prospect since 2012 — and, unlike the players, it never lies. To be fair, yes, Boni has turned the carpenter’s square on himself. “Six-two,” he blurts proudly. But then, before the words have even left his mouth, Boni holds up a finger to wait, catching even himself in the kind of ubiquitous fib that this event was meant to combat. OK, well, he’s not exactly 6-foot-2, he confesses. He’s “six oh one seven,” scout-speak for 6-foot-1, which amounts to a difference of about half the thickness of your phone.
Boni is a stickler. And when it comes to extracting the truth from elite athletes about their height and weight, well, you have to be.
In the hyper-data era of sports, we are hurtling toward absolute precision and mathematical certainty, where we can gleefully quantify grand mysteries such as a third-string fullback’s fourth-quarter red zone yards after contact in temperatures above and below 55 degrees. Yet it is something of a delightful, rebellious quirk that the first critical bit of data we learn about elite athletes — their height and weight — is still, more often than not, a complete and utter fabrication.
“The secret little sin in sports nobody ever talks about,” says the legit 6-4 Rebecca Lobo, a 2017 inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame and an ESPN analyst. “In sports, intimidation can be just as important as truth. If a little lie gives you that little extra mental edge, then it’s worth it. That’s the reason for all the fibbing — it works.”
Lying, after all, is a highly effective, innate part of the human condition that comes as easily, and almost as often, as breathing. And exaggerating our stature, one of the most common fibs of all, has been practically programmed into our brains by millions of years of evolution and sociology that reinforce the notion that taller, larger people are superior. That programming is exponentially more powerful in sports, where athletes often stretch the truth to fight back against ridiculous notions of ideal body prototypes, which exclude, say, NFL quarterbacks under 6 feet or diminutive hockey wingers.
Take Martin St. Louis, a right winger who retired in 2015 after 16 seasons and 391 goals and is a lock for the Hockey (and heightening) Hall of Fame.
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Starting at Vermont and throughout his NHL career, St. Louis says he would get officially measured at 5-7 every year at his team physical. And every year before the season opener, he’d glance at the game program and see himself listed at 5-9. “I don’t know if it was me seeing myself as being bigger than my actual number or if, at the time, in a big man’s game, I just had a better chance at making it as a 5-9 player than at 5-7 1/2,” he says. “Everyone’s trying to get an edge, and sometimes it’s with the tape measure. It’s a game of inches, right?”
It’s hard to judge athletes too harshly for heightening when their deceits are often encouraged and magnified by what sociologists call an ecology of enablers — parents, coaches, recruiters, trainers, agents, media — who benefit just as much from the tall tales. Which means almost every single person in sports is either lying about his or her height or lying about the lying. “It’s very peculiar and pathological,” says David Smith, a philosophy professor at the University of New England and the author of Why We Lie. “In sports it becomes an arms race where if everyone’s exaggerating, you kind of have to do it too just to keep up.”
Indeed, fibbing about height and weight is such a common, widespread and time-honored tradition in sports that it barely even registers as deception anymore. Most people dismiss it like a harmless embellishment on a résumé, a vestige of a simpler, less calculated time in sports. “Everybody in the world thinks they’re taller than they are,” Boni says. “So even with all that [advanced analytics and data], I don’t think we’ll get to the point where athletes will ever start telling the full truth, because this is a human nature thing more than a football thing.”
Elite athletes, and football players in particular, have turned manipulating their anthropometrics into an art form. Behind the stage at the Senior Bowl, empty gallon jugs of water are everywhere, guzzled by players trying to inflate their weight and perhaps their draft status. Several players are also doing last-second neck and back exercises because, according to Senior Bowl lore, that’s how Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson managed to taffy-stretch himself above 5-10 at this event in 2012. Boni and his fellow scouts are pretty sure they’ve seen it all: weights “hidden” in spandex shorts; orthotics in socks; even artificially enhanced man buns. And despite all his instructions and warnings, the first two players step onstage wearing flip-flops. “Come on, guys,” Boni says with a sigh. Later he adds, “Flip-flops … that was a new one, even for me.”
Boni has developed an intricate routine to safeguard every measurement. Players must place their heels together and their feet in a V, which makes it difficult to rise up on the toes or boost themselves off the wall. While talking guys through the process with the calm tone of a yoga instructor, Boni manipulates their head and chin into position. They fight him on this because it feels counterintuitive, but a level chin actually raises the crown of your head. And that’s where Boni places his trusty carpenter’s square. He pushes it like a lever back toward the chart on the wall and as soon as it goes flush, Boni barks out the player’s official height down to an eighth of an inch. For example, even though No. 1 draft pick Baker Mayfield is listed in the Oklahoma football program (and on NFL.com) as 6-1, his true height is 6003, or 6-0.
Each time Boni speaks, the sea of scouts nods in cultish unison to inscribe the data or breathlessly whisper it into tiny hand-held devices. Players, though, rarely like what they hear. Boni says 99 percent end up shorter than their program height. A few years ago, a wide receiver from the SEC was infuriated with Boni after he was informed he wasn’t actually 6-5 but instead barely 6-3. After guaranteeing everyone he’d hit 72 inches back in 2014, Johnny Manziel looked physically ill when Boni announced him at 5116 (5-11¾). “And he was not happy about it,” Boni says. “I always hear guys say, ‘Wait, but I’ve been 6-3 my whole life.’ Well, you might have been listed in media guides as 6-3 your whole life, but in the real world, sorry, you’re 6-1.”
This year, on the 56-man Senior Bowl North roster alone, 70 percent of the players are caught stretching the truth by more than half an inch in height or more than 5 pounds in weight. Almost 40 percent have lied by an inch or more in height and 10 pounds or more in weight. The fudging in Mobile is consistent with the sleight of hand going on across the sports landscape. In 2012, college hoops blog Run the Floor analyzed the data at the predraft Portsmouth Invitational Tournament and found that of the 62 players measured, 76 percent were at least an inch shorter than they claimed. Brett Brungardt, the founder of Seattle-based Basic Athletic Measurement, which collects anthropometrics for the NBA’s prospects and 16 other sports, says the heightening in basketball is so rampant that as soon as he sets up his equipment, “players literally run out of the gym.”
Not even the tallest, richest athletes on earth are immune to the universal desire to feel bigger. In 2016, The Wall Street Journal helped expose just how laughable the program heights can be in the NBA. Really, just pick a name of any “big” man in the league. Kevin Love? Dwight Howard? They’re both 2 inches shorter than they claim. In 2015, current Rockets forward Tarik Black was officially 6-11. The next season, he mysteriously shrank to 6-9. A college strength and conditioning coach for 25 years, Brungardt was so frustrated in 2008 by the lack of standard measurements in sports that he quit his job at the University of Washington to start BAM. One of his favorite players at UW was future NBA All-Star Nate Robinson, listed at 5-9. “On his very best day, if we stretched Nate and hung him upside down and put him in space gravity, he might have been 5-7 — maybe,” Brungardt says. (Robinson’s agent didn’t respond to a request for comment.) “Nate was one of the all-time greatest all-around athletes. So much heart and ability. But man, he still wanted to be 5-9 in that program so bad for some reason.”
Dallas guard J.J. Barea, who admits to being 5-10 on a good day, has to occasionally stop himself from giggling when he’s announced before games as being 6 feet “because me and about 20,000 other people in the arena knew that was a lie,” he told the Journal. The paper also uncovered the fact that 6-11 NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant is actually lying in reverse, shortening himself to 6-9 because he wants to be perceived as a small forward, not a power forward. It’s a trick he said he learned from Kevin Garnett.
In perhaps the truest statement ever spoken about lying in sports, Durant admitted that when he’s in basketball circles, he tells everyone he’s 6-9.
And when he’s talking to women?
“I’m 7 feet,” he says.
Baker Mayfield’s program listing might be a tad inflated, but that didn’t stop him from becoming the top overall pick. AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
Sports anthropometrics judge men by the unrealistic body standards we normally impose on women. Nancy Blaker, a professor in New Zealand who studies the connection between physical size and social status, has proved that men are far more likely than women to exaggerate their stature, mainly because the benefits of being perceived as bigger are typically greater for men. That seems to hold true in athletics as well. Rather than lie, short female athletes tend to just stand tall. Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, the shootout hero of the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic hockey team, puts it this way: “I am what I am, and adding an inch or 10 pounds isn’t going to make me more or less of an opponent.”
There’s still plenty of fibbing going on in women’s sports, though, if you know where to look. Former Mississippi State guard Morgan William, the star of the 2017 Final Four who ended UConn’s 111-game winning streak with a game-winning shot over 5-11 Gabby Williams, is still listed at 5-5. But when ESPN’s Holly Rowe, who is 5-3, recently pressed William on her height, she included this genius, ironclad disclaimer for William: Not what it says in the program, not what you think in your dreams, but what the number says in black and white on the chart when you go to the doctor’s office. “OK, yeah, I’m 5-foot-3,” William relented. “And a half!” Rowe and Lobo are also pretty sure that two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker and a handful of other players are taller than their program heights. (Parker, when asked via text whether she was taller than 6-4, did not respond.) “The truth is important,” Lobo says, “but pretty much everyone knows the first measurement an athlete gives you is a lie. The number in the program seems to reflect the version of themselves that athletes wished they were.”
In 2012, before the WTA did away with publishing tennis players’ weights in their tour bios, Ben Rothenberg, in a piece for Slate, realized that at 6-2 and 130 pounds, Maria Sharapova would almost have the BMI of a Barbie Doll. “This is all probably because of your standard stereotype about women wanting to be smaller,” says Olympic hockey team captain Meghan Duggan. “Which I don’t necessarily agree with. Powerful, strong female athletes are incredible role models.”
Duggan admits to rounding up less than half an inch to her listed height of 5-10 simply because “those double digits just look nicer.” She is a part of a grand old tradition of heightening in hockey. In the NHL, rule changes have turned the game’s emphasis from power and size to speed and agility, creating even less incentive to lie. Yet so many people doubt Patrick Kane’s listed height of 5-11 that Google autocorrects inquiries on this subject directly to: How tall is Patrick Kane really. Setting up for a photo op at the White House in 2016, Sidney Crosby tried to join the “tall line” before a teammate told him to head “a couple of rows that way, Sid.” Crosby slumped away mumbling his program height. “I’m 5-11, boys, I’m 5-11.” Alex Ovechkin still claims to be the same size (6-3) as his countryman Evgeni Malkin even though he regularly ends up staring directly into Malkin’s chin when they meet on the ice. Last fall, when informed that the Capitals had listed him at 239 pounds in their training camp roster, Ovi chuckled and said “239? 259.” The Caps responded by doubling down and listing him as 235 in the media guide — a number that really should be adjusted to 279.5 to account for Ovi’s newest appendage, the Stanley Cup.
In Montreal, the Canadiens’ website features a video quiz called “Who Knows You Best?” which pits teammates against one another. In an episode from 2014, winger Brendan Gallagher (listed at 5-9) asks teammate Alex Galchenyuk, “How tall am I?”
The first thing Galchenyuk clarifies? The golden rule when inquiring about an elite athlete’s height: “NHL.com or real life?”
Real life, Gallagher says.
“Five ten point four,” Galchenyuk guesses.
“Generous, but no, 5-8½,” Gallagher admits with a slight wince.
Alex Ovechkin had some fun with his training camp listing ahead of his Stanley Cup-winning campaign with the Capitals. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Halfway through the Senior Bowl weigh-in, the same kind of pained look unfurls across the face of Michigan linebacker Mike McCray. Listed at 6-4 his entire college career, McCray does a double take when Boni announces his actual height as barely 6-1. It’s the biggest fib by a linebacker anyone has heard since, well, since the year before, when Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers turned out to be 5-10, more than 2 inches shorter than the Wolverines claimed.
When asked to explain the discrepancies, Michigan spokesman David Ablauf concluded that the rest of the world must be off by 3 inches. “We use real measurements to determine these numbers coming from our medical and strength staffs,” Ablauf wrote in an email. “Also, we change heights and weights once a year in the fall to reflect changes made by lifting programs, nutritional adjustments and natural body changes for 18- to 22-year-old young men.”
McCray’s measurement inspires more than a few eye rolls in the audience, especially among those who have ever endured one of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s sermons about the importance of honesty. “You will have choices to make where a dishonest edge can be gained,” Harbaugh said during a 2015 commencement speech at Coronado High School in California. “And whatever gain is made will be undermined sometime down the road. As our dad told us flat out, never lie, it won’t be worth it.”
In sports, that might be the biggest lie of all.
When McCray first stepped on campus in Ann Arbor, he was simply told: “You’re 6-4.” “I’m not sure who decided I was 6-4,” he says, “but I can’t control what they put in the program.” McCray asked several times to have his height corrected, only to be told, “It is what it is.” Over time, though, he grew to enjoy being thought of as 6-4 and even convinced himself it was an acceptable embellishment because in his heart he knew he was taller than his dad, Mike McCray Sr., a linebacker and captain on the 1984 Ohio State team who was listed on the Buckeyes’ roster at 6-3. The only problem? Now an assistant high school principal in Ohio, Mike Sr. admits that he’s — wait for it — only 6-1 in real life. “When I have my cleats and helmet on and I’m feeling good, I do feel taller than I am,” Mike Jr. says after his first Senior Bowl practice. “What else can I say? I honestly don’t know what I’m going to say, but I’m sure teams will have questions about it.”
Less than five weeks later, a duly chastened McCray found out exactly how much the NFL worries about this kind of blatant heightening when he reported to the NFL combine in Indianapolis. Terrified that he had messed up his draft status, the first thing McCray did after checking in was look up his new official draft bio.
After a few anxious clicks, there it was, in big digits right at the top of the page, his new NFL-approved authentic height: 6-4.