You pretty much need range, scope and span to break into this list. It helps if your hoax stretches across years or at least months. It helps if it can envelop a slew of people. If it can cross international borders and achieve a worthy level of bizarreness -- that can add points.
Here on Manti Te'o Day at the hoax-committee meetings with our visions of Milli Vanilli and our quorum of one in a hotel room with a plastic container of cashews, we confess to the occasional uneven standard about what makes the cut. These lists should remain forever malleable, for we have just learned that when we think we see the most fraudulent story, we might not have seen the most fraudulent story.
The juiced-up East German swimmers of yore certainly had their chance, but it's hard for doping stories to elbow into such a crowded doping field. Rafael Palmeiro certainly did point at Congress, but we all have wanted to do that on occasion. Danny Almonte played a Little League World Series at 14, but I'm going to venture to say he's not really alone in that legacy.
Sports Illustrated ran its fictitious story on the otherworldly pitcher Sidd Finch, but it did run on April Fool's Day. Diego Maradona committed his hand-ball goal against England, but he really didn't hide the fraud, meaning it might not have been a fraud in the first place. The Polish-American runner Stella Walsh won Olympic gold in 1932, but at least she might have been intersex, in the complex human equation of gender.
Bob Knight made up the fictitious recruit Ivan Renko, but that ruse didn't last long enough and, besides, it deserves commendation for its comment on the recruiting frenzy. Sometimes two wrongs can pull up just shy of a right.
The New England Patriots' spying might gather long range as the years pass, but, for now, we don't know.
Still, in finding 10, the committee suddenly had to make room for Te'o's Fabricated Girlfriend With Leukemia, which rocketed impressively up the charts and called to mind Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo," when Jeff Daniels came down from the movie screen and Mia Farrow wound up saying, "It's been a whirlwind of a day. I met a man, we fell in love -- he's fictional, but you can't have everything."
Further, the committee had to squeeze 11 into its big 10, just to include a marvel. Of course, including 11 in a big 10 in a heavily fraudulent business is not unprecedented.
HONORABLE MENTION: THE SNOOKER SNOOK. However malleable the list, this ravishing beauty should remain forever No. 11 in the top 10. Maybe it should not occupy the top 10, but it should always have a place. In April 2010, the Scottish snooker champion John Higgins and his agent Pat Mooney met in Kiev, Ukraine, with reporters posing as promoters offering 300,000 euros (about $400,000) to fix four frames. Higgins later claimed to go along out of safety fears, and the sport's authorities mostly backed him up, but this occasion boasted enormous educational value. Many of us, living oblivious lives, never once had considered that there could be snooker fixing, or that there could be snooker skulduggery or, really, that there even could be snooker. This relieved us of that sprawling ignorance.
10. BEN JOHNSON'S DELTOID. As aforementioned, it's hard to climb from the vast doping morass onto the list, but that synthetically attained deltoid from Seoul 1988 has remained lodged in the mind for almost 25 years. That deltoid is an emblem, a beacon so many of us have tried and failed to replicate through years of lifting. Think of the raft of shenanigans required to acquire that deltoid. Yet only after his ouster from his positive test did an excellent Sports Illustrated caption writer write, to accompany a photo, "Note the rather implausible deltoid muscle."
9. THE SPANISH GOLD-MEDAL PARALYMPIC BASKETBALL TEAM. With their absurd mystique, Olympics have served as a primo hoax target and hoarded some of these spots. The Paralympics got a much-deserved spot because a Spanish coach in 2000 used players who were not cognitively disabled, some of whom had played in fairly high rungs of mainstream basketball. Not only that, a journalist embedded himself, undercover. Not only that, but press accounts claimed that when suspicion welled, the coach had his players grow beards and, when they began playing too adeptly, instructed them to slow down the scoring. Yes, they had to return the golds.
8. THE FAKE SHEIKH. This case marks a double in the top 11 for the English reporter Mazher Mahmood, who also participated in the snooker revelation, and this certainly marked one of the glory moments of England's vivid, lurid soccer-tabloid marriage. Posing in January 2006 as an Arab businessman delving into soccer, Mahmood of the now-defunct News of the World spent months preparing to lure Sven-Goran Eriksson, the Swede with the high-brow job of managing England's national team. He lured Eriksson clear to Dubai, to the dreamy, seven-star Burj al-Arab Hotel (and really, who wouldn't succumb?). He lured Eriksson with lobster and crab cakes and about $1,500 worth of champagne and other effective products. And when it was done, Eriksson had told the fake sheikh not only some impolitic things about England's players, but that Eriksson would move on to Aston Villa and lure David Beckham there once the fake sheikh bought the storied, Birmingham-based club. And when that was done, Eriksson began a sequence of phone-call contrition, as well as a hysterical prepared statement: "I would like to assure everyone, especially the fans, that I'm 100-percent committed to the England job."
7. MARION. The thing that long-jumps Marion Jones onto this list is not the doping. It's not the cheating. It's not the five Sydney 2000 medals she had to return. It's not even the quirky press conference with her husband, the shot-putter C.J. Hunter, during the Games. It's the elaborate run-up to that great Olympics, the willingness to participate in her portrayal as the beautiful face of those Games. Engendering the widespread love we Americans gave her while knowing how she did it must have wreaked untold stress. Or, not.
6. ROSIE. Rosie Ruiz's ruse at the 1980 Boston Marathon transpired on Monday and met with disqualification by Thursday, but forgotten is the similar disqualification from the 1979 New York Marathon, drawn from an eyewitness account that had her also using some subway there, in a sport in which you are not supposed to use the subway. Widely forgotten also is the name of the legitimate 1980 Boston winner, which does tell us something about the human brain and its fascination with hoaxes. Let's shout it here: She was Jacqueline Gareau, a Canadian whose 2:34:28 was a course record that occurred over the, you know, course.
5. A DAYDREAM IN NEVADA. Anybody who felt too irked at Kevin Hart was probably just a grump anyway -- or maybe in serious need of coffee. He was a 6-foot-5, 290-pound offensive lineman who wanted so badly to grace Division I football. Most of us know some similar pain even if we don't know 6-foot-5 and 290. What gets him on this list is the elaborateness of his lie, including the buildup to national signing day as he told his school newspaper that five schools had become his finalists. By the time it got to signing day, a gym filled with people and the odd TV camera here and there for the usual, if bizarre, scene of a young man choosing between hats. He chose Oregon over Cal even though neither had recruited him, and he sort of tricked University of Nevada coach Chris Ault, who told Gene Wojciechowski of ESPN that he spent a moment fearing repercussions from not having recruited somebody close by. But Ault also didn't get mad. We all understand.
4. SOX, BLACK. Even as many know of the fixing of the 1919 World Series and the ensuing banishment of eight White Sox players after an intricate fraud, I always think of a nuance. The World Series at that time was best-of-nine, and in Game 7, with Cincinnati ahead four games to two, White Sox ace Ed Cicotte beat Cincinnati 4-1. After two previous losses, he took a hiatus from Series-throwing to excel. Melancholy.
3. A CLUB IN DETROIT. At Super Bowl XXVIII in January 1994, the loquacious Dallas Cowboys guard Nate Newton marveled. "Y'all beaten' that drum hard," he said. "Y'all" meant the media, and "drum" meant the story of that winter, the story that changed the way we live. You can make a case -- and here I do -- that the attempt of Tonya Harding's multi-character camp to fix the Olympic figure skating by hiring a man to club rival Nancy Kerrigan above the knee became the first modern-day media frenzy. It preceded O.J. by five months. It made news-magazine covers in that pre-Internet age. It consumed the small screens because people could not stop looking at it. The drum did beat hard.
2. THE FICTITIOUS GIRLFRIEND ON THE PHONE. This Manti Te'o saga spans months, maybe years. It stretches from northern Indiana to Southern California, if only by phone connections (and, strangely, apparently, not by Skype or any such not-so-new technology). It seeps into untold media reports and untold media sentimentalism. It fakes. It jukes. It baffles. It boggles. It commands a whole autumn and early winter, involves an image-conscious university and lurches all the way to a 57-year-old athletic director speaking of social-media "catfishing" and MTV and the definition of the verb "met." When it appeared, it could not be true. As each morsel spills out, it barely can be true. If it keeps going, who knows how high it could climb on this list -- even if within mere hours it has bolted all the way up near the impenetrable.
1. THE IMPENETRABLE. Then again, how much higher could Te'o really go? Shouldn't Lance Armstrong's career remain insuperable no matter how eccentric the rival? Could anybody come up with a fraud of such breadth to rope in pretty much an entire sport plus France plus cancer plus a thirst for vengeance? Armstrong's career is a hoax of such sprawling audacity that it might bolt to No. 1 on the seven titles and the mass plucking of heartstrings, but it bolts somewhere into the hoax stratosphere, a No. 1 beyond No. 1, on its extra layers of aggression. Where many hoaxes try to sit still and hide, this one blasted anyone who dared brand its towering falsehoods as towering falsehoods. It's an enduring marvel, and it will be so very hard to trump, even for any ensuing jolts from snooker.