If there is anything that we have learned as sports fans over the past year, it is that we ought not trust anything about the sports figures whom we think we know.
We have seen Joe Paterno's legacy ripped to shreds by the issuance of the Freeh Report, leading Penn State to go from the Grand Experiment to suffering the worst sanctions since SMU received the death penalty. We've seen Lance Armstrong admit to use of banned substances, get stripped of his Tour de France titles, and then find himself crawling to Oprah's couch in order to begin a Sisyphean quest for forgiveness. We are just a week removed from baseball ripping off the band-aid that covers its steroid era by engaging in an internal debate triggered by the Hall of Fame voting. At one stage, the sports culture viewed Paterno, Armstrong, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa as paragons, as figures that meant something more than what they produced on the field. Now, those names are punch lines, but we go right on our merry way.
So we arrive at yesterday's big news, which was the impalement of Manti Teo's reputation because it turns out that the dead girlfriend story upon which much of his reputation was built this year turns out to be a hoax. Whether you believe that Te'o was duped by Internet pranksters (as Jack Swarbrick does) or was in on the ruse (as most of Twitter appears to think), this is the wrong time to express surprise.
Apparent hoax || Te'o coverage || Notre Dame fans react
The specifics are new. We certainly have not had a "fake dead girlfriend" story happen in college football before. However, the general point is one that we should have learned by now. The mainstream sports media funnels us personal information in an attempt to make us care about athletes above and beyond what they do on the field; it mythologizes sports figures so we think that we are watching more than a game.
However, what we are being fed is often swill that uncritical journalists shovel our way, expecting us to belly up to the table and eat what they are serving. Josh Levin at Slate describes the phenomenon nicely:
Manti Te'o was a sports hero, and his standout play this year demanded the details to flesh out that storyline. There's a journalistic cliché: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. For sports hagiographers, it's more like: If he makes a lot of tackles, don't you dare check anything. Stardom demands that feature writers color in the lines with off-field greatness. And Te'o's character, it seemed, was unimpeachable. After all, there had been all these stories about how humble and religious he was, and how he'd been led to Notre Dame to do something.
Yesterday's revelation led to many lessons, but one was a great vindication of Deadspin and its motto: sports without access, favor, or discretion. For instance, Sam Eifling's recent piece on picking a single national champion for every season was comically weak.* The reaction to the piece was generally, "Deadspin doesn't know what they're talking about when it comes to college football." Little did we know what they were sitting on at that time. Deadspin may lack a base level of knowledge or interest in college football, but they have something that a host of esteemed media entities lack: the ability to resist the temptation to be an accomplice to the Notre Dame myth-making machine.
* - Where to begin with the weakness of the piece? How about giving Auburn a title in 1993, when the Tigers went unbeaten against a weak schedule and would have been a double-digit underdog on a neutral field against Florida State, and not in 1983, when Auburn had one loss against the toughest schedule in the country and lost out on the title only because Miami beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl after Tom Osborne lost his mind? Or giving BYU the 1984 title without a modicum of discussion?
The breaking of the Te'o story ought to lead us to change the channel when we are fed stories that depend on access. We just should not care about off-the-field stories anymore, because we have enough examples to know that we should not trust them, and we cannot have confidence that the people who bring us those stories will do the hard, skeptical legwork to ensure that they are not part of a scam.
It's cool to mock Tom Rinaldi's pieces for ESPN as being treacly and emotionally manipulative, but they're worse than that. They are the best examples of stories that we believe at our own peril, stories that lead us astray from what matters as a fan, which is what happens on the field (or off the field that directly impacts wins and losses, i.e. recruiting, coaching hires, NCAA investigations, etc.)
In short, the past year should lead college football fans to heed a simple lesson: focus on verifiable information. What happened on the field? What was the score? Who played well? What coaching decisions were smart, in light of the circumstances? What do recruiting results tell us about the directions of programs? Everything else is just noise.
To use a legal analogy, there are two primary challenges to evidence that every first-year law student learns. The first is relevance, and the second is hearsay. Stories like Manti Teo's dead girlfriend have problems in both categories. They are irrelevant because they have nothing to do with the player's merit on the field. Te'o almost won the Heisman in no small part because of his back story, and few seemed to bat an eye that this almost happened, regardless of whether the back story was a fable. They are hearsay because they are off-field tales and we have reason to doubt their veracity.
After a year in which sports legends have seen their metaphorical statues pulled down like so many Lenins and Stalins in post-Communist Russia, we don't need to be building any more edifices to purported character. Remember that next September when Rinaldi asks you to take a closer look at what's in a player's heart.
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