Why the Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax story matters

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The storm of controversy that has churned around Manti Te'o for the past two weeks isn't just there because his story is sensational. And don't be tricked into thinking the story doesn't matter.

It's been nearly two weeks since Deadspin dropped its biggest story ever: Manti Te'o's girlfriend — the one who died within hours of his grandmother's death, the one whose story became part of his Heisman campaign, the one who Te'o spoke of repeatedly — never existed.

And yet, despite Te'o and Ronaiah Tuiasosopo becoming national names and punchlines, despite Notre Dame stepping up for one of its best football players in a way it didn't for a young woman who committed suicide after alleging sexual assault against a Golden Domer and a young man who died in the process of obtaining information for Notre Dame, despite the story's course presenting a dozen opportunities to gape at the problems in sports (and mainstream) media in America, there are those who insist Manti Te'o doesn't matter.

Did we just spend the last 12 days making jokes about a thing that "doesn't matter?" (We do seem to do that a lot.) Are we deeply invested in the outcome of a story that makes us look bad for caring? (We do this a lot, too.) Does the interest in feeding the many, many people who would like to know more about Te'o and how this all happened combined with an apparent lack of interest in ascertaining whether Te'o's phantom girlfriend ever existed when he was telling us all that she did tell us something about the media? (Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.)

The reasons people are still interested in Manti Te'o are the reasons this story matters, because a story being interesting to many people is more than enough to make it matter. Let's run them down.

Te'o hoax coverage by Notre Dame fans

Manti Te'o matters because America loves to argue

You know why Tim Tebow was a daily fixture on SportsCenter? Because people liked arguing about Tim Tebow. There were many, many people who disagreed with the argument even happening on principle, and tired of the arguments, and tired of the people making the arguments, but I'm a Florida-born University of Florida graduate who writes about the Florida Gators as part of my job, and I promise you that people still like defending Tebow's honor against people who think he's the worst NFL quarterback ever. This is part of the nature of polarized discussion among partisans, and ESPN has helped stoke those discussions by embracing debate and providing an ever-intensifying torrent of takes to agree with or dismiss out of hand.

Te'o gives us many, many different lines of argument: There's enough evidence to argue that Te'o lied to keep his Heisman campaign alive; Te'o was part of a conspiracy to have a fake girlfriend; Te'o is a massive jerk who dated a woman just months after the "love of his life" passed; Notre Dame helped cover for Te'o; Notre Dame did things for Te'o it never came close to doing for Declan Sullivan and Lizzy Seeberg; Te'o's draft stock should or should not be affected (and the millions that his draft stock is worth should or should not evanesce) because of this saga; ESPN and other mainstream media outlets are too beholden to access to ever do what Deadspin did; Deadspin is better equipped to tell interesting stories that cast athletes in less-than-positive lights than any other news outlet; the Internet is a scary place where Catfishing happens; Tuiasosopo is a jerk of the highest order for pulling this prank on an innocent Te'o; Te'o must be gay because he went to these lengths to hide a relationship with a girlfriend who turned out to be a man.

I'm not condoning all or any of those lines of argument as right, but there are certainly a lot of them. And there are more now, thanks to Te'o's interview with Katie Couric last Thursday.

What's next for Te'o?

Manti Te'o matters because people love to wonder about sex, and especially about sexuality

On Thursday, Couric asked Te'o, "One of the theories, many theories, Manti, making the rounds, is that you created this whole scenario to cover up your sexual orientation. Are you gay?" Te'o replied with nervous laughter, and "No. Far from it. Farrr from it." Couric's studio audience chuckled at that reply.

It probably shouldn't matter who Te'o (or anyone) decides to love, or why, and had his girlfriend not been revealed to the world to be a hoax, it probably wouldn't matter to anyone more than Te'o's circle of family and friends. If there had been a person named Lennay Kekua whom Manti Te'o loved before she died, she would have been a part of his story and little more; because she was not real, and because this was revealed to the world, we are confused. And curious.

But now Katie Couric thinks it's okay, even necessary, to ask Te'o if he's gay — after prefacing the question with another wondering why, as the big man on campus at Notre Dame, he didn't want "a real girlfriend" he could obviously have gotten — and Te'o thinks it's important to clarify that he's not gay with a, "Farrr from it," that sure makes it sounds like there are few things he would like to be less than a gay man, and an audience that stands in for America titters at the notion that an attractive, athletic football player could be gay.

That's an indication that it won't be every American who embraces the first football player with the confidence to identify as gay, and that at least some of us are still deeply uncomfortable with the idea that people who exude masculinity might also be sexually interested in men. It wouldn't be a shock if Te'o himself is uncomfortable, at least, given that he's an adherent of a religion that recently toned down its stance on homosexuality by asserting that only homosexual acts, not homosexual feelings, are "sinful," has been educated at a school that has only recently provided services to queer students, and whose roots trace to Samoa, where homosexuality is illegal but a third gender, fa'afafine, blurs some of the traditional lines between male and female.

It's understandable if Te'o is uncomfortable with queerness as a result of unfamiliarity, because millions of Americans are less homophobic than they are lacking in understanding. That doesn't make Couric's question — one that has no parallel for people who are suspected of being heterosexual, because heterosexuality is the accepted default — any less frustrating, or make, "Farrr from it," a less icky distancing from homosexuality, or make the laughter from the audience that suggests relief that Te'o isn't gay any more tolerable. It just better contextualizes the chatter that always comes with public questions about sexuality.

Speculation if Te'o is gay came almost instantly and simultaneously with the publication of Deadspin's article, and has been fevered since then on Twitter: I set up a "Manti Te'o gay" search on Twitter late on the night of January 16, and the rate of tweets containing those three words has often been well over one per minute since Thursday. And that only accounts for tweets using his full name, doesn't include anyone using slurs or creative phrasing to speculate, and would have likely found nearly one tweet per minute even before Te'o's denial — and, thus, his legitimization of the speculation — lit up Twitter last Thursday afternoon.

I won't pretend I didn't speculate about Te'o's sexuality, because I did, and I won't tell you I'm proud of those tweets. But I'd like to think I took more care than Clay Travis, never shy about doing the blog equivalent of ambulance chasing, who published his theory that Te'o is gay ("This is actually the only story that makes any sense at all") mere hours after Deadspin's story, and Dan Patrick, who now traffics in the cesspool sludge of sports talk radio and has apparently advanced his own theory about Te'o being gay.

I probably didn't, and I feel guilty and sorry for that.

But all this traces back to one question people are struggling with: Why isn't a football star dating, and dating women? Te'o not doing that perplexes us like Tim Tebow's public proclamation of virginity did before him, and Te'o wasn't photographed on the arms of attractive women in his four years at Notre Dame like Tebow repeatedly was at Florida. We expect football players to date women because we always have and they always have, basically, with decades upon decades of those expectations producing a culture that can openly joke about how an attractive wife is evidence of recruiting acumen and assumes that men who play football should have no trouble finding women to sleep with. The same thinking was at the root of Brent Musburger's reaction to Katherine Webb: Women are parts of the prestige awarded to athletes, a reason for a father to go throw the football with his son.

That thinking, and the question about why someone isn't following that path, isn't exclusive to football alone — with Rock Hudson at one end and Tom Cruise at another, Hollywood has asked it repeatedly — and it's regrettable no matter the context, because, for a society that likes to think it is open-minded, it reveals plenty about how narrow our views of some roles are. I wish we'd stop asking it, or at least start accepting that we don't have any right to the answer, but the Te'o saga has proven that we're probably not close to that day.

Manti Te'o matters because journalism is being turned on its ear

For all the great work Deadspin did in uncovering this story — and I genuinely think Tim Burke and Jack Dickey should be nominated for prizes for their efforts — the core of their reporting was scouring the Internet using reverse image searches and Twitter after getting a tip. Those aren't things that ESPN or Sports Illustrated or NBC Sports' Notre Dame site couldn't have done, but they are things the bigger, more respected media outlets didn't do, for whatever reason, and that's got to scare a lot of people working at the bigger outlets.

Journalism's internet inadequacy by Team Speed Kills

The greatest thing about Deadspin, for my money, is that it gives zero shits about having or maintaining access for the purposes of making people in sports look good, and that makes it incredibly dangerous to its sports media competitors, where access, the nectar that reporters crave, is traded for positive coverage of the subjects outlets' audiences care about. But Deadspin knows that it's not the subjects people care about so much as the stories, which is why Brett Favre's lecherous voicemails is way more interesting than the 336th story about how great or gunslinger-y Favre was.

Deadspin found the best story in sports this year and milked it for everything it could before the walls went up, then went back to blowing Tommy's trumpet at the walls of Bristol. This pissed off at least one person who apparently doesn't understand Deadspin, and it could presage a strange future for sports media: The stories that require access to players will remain the province of people willing to compromise to get it, but the stories that don't, including the ones that set the Internet ablaze, will increasingly be broken by enterprising outlets that don't need or want that access. The things reporters wish they could write and the stories reporters wish they could publish will appear on blogs.

This is just part of a democratization of journalism that has reduced many of the barriers to entry in the field to rubble, and the world of sports is not the only one where incredible stories can come from hard work to follow up on a fortuitous tip. But this entire story only exists because Deadspin did more diligence in checking out "Lennay Kekua" than dozens of writers did last fall, and it's the spectacular failure of media members at all levels to ensure that the tremendous story they told was true that makes this story most interesting to me.

The "athlete overcomes personal tragedy" story is so common that it's nearly an everyday occurrence at this point: Last week's #GetOwenOnSportsCenter campaign produced yet another local sports story that "went viral" and turned into national news because someone wanted their friend to be in the news, it seems, and took to Twitter to make it happen, which doesn't strike me as all that different as a parent calling up the local paper and getting a child featured in it, except for scale. ESPN's own explanation of how Owen Groessner's two three-pointers showed up in SportsCenter's venerated Top 10 Plays countdown doesn't explain how it came to be popular on Twitter.

But, in all fairness to Groessner, an eighth grader with Down syndrome, making two threes on a weeknight is not nearly the same as Te'o leading Notre Dame to victory over a rival a week after his grandmother and girlfriend passed away, and it's not nearly on par with Te'o's excellent, inspired play from Notre Dame's magical fall. Groessner was a feel-good story that filled space on an otherwise average night in sports; for almost an entire season, Te'o was the greatest human interest story in one of the most popular American sports, one that is uniquely susceptible to the mythologizing of heroes, with the veil of amateurism still hiding college football's warts from many and the ESPN media machine as close to the sport as peanut butter is to jelly.

Te'o's story is #GetOwenOnSportsCenter writ large, except for Te'o never really asking for his story to be told and that story not exactly being true. If you don't think it matters that those in charge of determining the value of news are susceptible to public pressure on one end and unable to check out stories fully on another, you probably believe everything you see on Facebook, don't you?

What-ifs abound in regards to media treatment of Te'o, too: What if SI's Pete Thamel had pressed a little harder to find Lennay Kekua, or had more than two hours to turn in his feature on Te'o when he sat down to interview him? What if Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune had put a little more research than purple prose into his October story about Te'o's family and Lennay Kekua? What if someone had tipped a media outlet on December 6, the day that Te'o says he received a call that suggested Kekua wasn't dead, just two days before the Heisman Trophy was awarded?

If we take Te'o at his word, keeping his secret for the six weeks after that world-rocking phone call was probably very hard. In many respects, though, Te'o is very, very lucky that this story came after his most prominent moments as a college football player, as the scrutiny he and his words have been under for the last two weeks would have been multiplied many times with the Heisman and a national title on the line. Now, he just has to deal with lower-intensity storms, the furious winds of journalism whipping at him.

And, for many, the winds are every bit as important as the story itself. If Deadspin can gin up a tornado with some reporting like this about a story with limited ramifications in the world of sports, like it did with reporting on Josh Hamilton's night out, it can do it with a bigger story, like reporting on MLB teams' financials. I think these things likely contribute to a constant fear in sports that someone with an ax to grind or a juicy tidbit can leak it and watch the world burn, and I think that constant fear is only going to make athletes, teams, and leagues wrap their arms even tighter around sympathetic media partners.

That's probably good for people who want to run counter to the status quo, but it may be more bad for people who want good and honest reporting done: stories like Thamel's Te'o feature that are written with just two hours for turnaround are more common than you think, and there's more and greater potential for slapdash work that doesn't reveal anything or collapses under scrutiny when access is that limited. If it's the athletes, teams, and leagues dictating the terms of their coverage — and, already, it often is — expect more of that in the future.

Manti Te'o matters because his story was perfectly timed, and perfect for our time

If Te'o's story had come out on the Wednesday of Super Bowl week and not two Wednesdays prior, it would have been a much smaller story because sports media outlets' high beams would be focused elsewhere. If it had come out two weeks from that Wednesday, it might be smaller still, with the distance from the BCS title game helping memories of Te'o grow fainter. If it had come out during Notre Dame's season, it would've been done and over by now, likely, with Te'o getting a chance to complete a redemption arc instead of having to sit and wait for NFL Draft workouts and a first NFL season that is distant on the horizon. And if there had been something truly interesting going on in national mainstream news, instead of the run-up to a president's second inauguration, it might have been reduced to a sideshow.

Instead, Te'o's saga dominated headlines for most of a business week, and The Daily Show spent the next week working Ronaiah Tuiasosopo puns into its A-block stories, and TMZ got to run dozens of breathless headlines about it. It helps to fell the tall trees when people are looking for something to happen in the forest.

But Te'o's story is also ripe for questioning that mirrors our questioning of American society, and seems like something we can learn from. A great football player having a purely online relationship makes us wonder about him and his sexuality and should make us wonder why we wonder about those things; a great football player being Catfished (and having this revealed just two months after MTV first aired Catfish) makes us wonder how susceptible we are to forged identities, and how the Internet has affected how we communicate. And then there's the question everyone should be asking: why was there a mass media failure to check out a sensational story, and does that happen often in stories that have more significant ramifications for the public, and has our societal capacity to do journalism been significantly reduced in recent years?

Investigating those wonders and answering that question are important things to do, I think, because it's very likely that we're only going to have more questions about the Internet and more worries about the franchise of journalism. And if Manti Te'o having a fake dead girlfriend leads us to doing them, then I think this story will eventually have been a good thing.

But because I care about those ramifications, it's impossible for me to dismiss Te'o's story as one that doesn't really matter. If you or care about something, it matters, at least to you or me; anyone who has dealt with a child crying over a lost toy knows this well.

Arguing that it doesn't really matter is just trying to make a semantic distinction that allows anyone who has followed it, or anything else that seems frivolous, to try to maintain some standard for what really matters. In my experience, that's usually something done to flatter one's own judgment, or to maintain some above-it-all pose.

But deciding that proof of Lennay Kekua's love and/or existence didn't really matter is part of what spawned the saga of Manti Te'o in the first place.

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