Since a Deadspin.com report exposing Manti Te’o's relationship with a supposedly deceased woman named Lennay Kekua as a hoax, dissemination of developments and speculation have dominated sports media. This is certainly one of the more bizarre stories in recent memory, and facets of it are sad. But the reaction outweighs the gravity.
I have read declarations calling this one of the biggest scandals in college football history. A year removed from the horrifying tragedy of Penn State, such reactions seem misguided. Strange, yes. Scandal? Barring revelations that Te’o masterminded then carried out a years-long plan to defraud Heisman voters, or somehow extorted money from his relationships, scandal is an ill-applied label.
Overplaying the magnitude of a story is what created this mess. If this was a lesser player, from a lesser program this would be a sidebar on the major sports outlets. Te’o may have been duped, and may have overstated a relationship that existed only in cyberspace. He also had the world’s largest megaphone in front of him to broadcast any potential embellishments around the continent.
A common refrain in recent days is if he knew about the hoax a month before the BCS championship game, why not come forward immediately? The answer is playing out on TV specials, radio airwaves and webpages around the country. Imagine this firestorm publicly raging while Te’o and his teammates prepared for the program’s most significant game in 25 years.
There’s an indictment to be made on sports media. All of it. This humble blog, tucked away on its little shire of the internet is no exception. I wrote allusions to Te’o's personal tragedy, accepting the reports at face value. I’m casting no stones at other, more recognized and talented football writers — and I wouldn’t, even if I hadn’t made mention of what I believed to be Te’o's story, because I get it.
After oversignings, the sad fall from grace of other players like Michael Dyer and Tyrann Mathieu, the TCU drug scandal and — at a level so much worse, I hate even mentioning in the same sentence as these other, less severe stories — Penn State, I get wanting to have a figure that can be looked to as the good guy. FOX’s Jason Whitlock wrote a column with an overall theme that seems like a stretch, using Te’o's situation as an indictment against the NCAA. But that part aside, one line summed up my thoughts:
Te’o was the anti-Cam Newton, the anti-Honey Badger, and Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans, the Batman and Robin of NCAA shamateurism enforcement, could not contain their delight in holding Te’o up as the symbol of what is right about college sports.
Of course, his approach replaces empathy with venom, and that’s a common theme at play here. Media becomes a cannibalistic entity when the conditions are right. Some of it is self-preservation. Some of it is deflection. Folks within the media will use the capital-m version of Media to criticize peers — capital-m Media is the boogeyman, hive mind entity invoked when stroking the broad brush of criticism. Few are as adept at going to the capital-m Media well as those in the industry. There’s no shortage of internal tut-tutting, but little acknowledgement of complicity.
Another reason reaction has been so explosive is when Media feels suckered, it lashes out. By every statistical measure, Barry Bonds is among the greatest baseball players of all-time. Bonds never failed a drug test. And yet, Bonds garnered all of 38 percent in this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame vote. Those who decide induction felt betrayed by Bonds. He was never built up to the mythical proportions other Hall-denied players Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire had been, but he was the best of the era — and that era was a contradiction to the mythos baseball media created.
In the same vein, Te’o's story not living up to its billing is a perceived slight. The backlash is an expression of the exasperation one feels after being conned, bamboozled…duped. Ironic, isn’t it?
It’s either poetic justice or sadly fitting that Deadspin broke this story, depending on your perspective. The site’s tone conveys a nihilism toward sport that’s crept into the common discourse. Part of what makes sports fun is the larger-than-life quality of its participants. People also love a heartwarming story that adds to the persona. Rudy doesn’t have its appeal if that pint-sized Little Engine That Could doesn’t make it on the field. Moreover, fans establishing a deeper connection to the athletes they watch week-in and week-out makes them feel like they’re devoting time to more pieces on a chessboard.
But the opposite side of the coin is valid. Pedestal-building is a dangerous practice. The higher they’re elevated, the greater the fall. The rational response is to recognize that athletes are human beings, and humans are inherently flawed. Just because a man can swing a bat, pursue a running back or jump 45 inches off the ground doesn’t make him infallible. At the same time, it doesn’t make them unsympathetic, either.
Middle ground exists, but it’s no closer to being reached now than it was before Deadspin published its report.