I don’t understand why anyone today would listen to a single word anyone -- at ESPN, or SI, or the South Bend Backscratch Tribune, or pretty much anyone else who has covered the Manti Te’o story before yesterday -- has to say today, now that the real story (or the closest we’ve come to it anyway) has come out. We have lost all credibility on the issue. I sort of wonder if we ever had it.
It is certainly understandable that there are tons of questions for Te’o to answer today. I certainly have quite a few of them myself. But when everybody tunes in to watch him be flogged -- or, more accurately, gently propositioned in the same sort of soft-focus 1-on-1 sit-down that got us into this mess in the first place -- it is important to remember that whether Manti Te’o was the victim of a hoax, a willing participant in a massive self-promotional (and sociopathic) deception, or both, the true takeaway from this story isn’t Manti Te’o’s Fake Girlfriend. It’s that, once again, nobody knows anything. You should be skeptical of everything you read, ever.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Deadspin story is not how thoroughly reported it is (by Jack Dickey and Timothy Burke), but how, all told, it wasn’t really that difficult for them to get. They received a random tip about the girlfriend being fake, and by the end of the first day, they had already noticed how strange it was that no one seemed to know when the girlfriend had died, or that there was no mention of her outside the context of Manti Te’o. Once they started going down that rabbit hole, Te’o’s story almost instantly unraveled. Tom Scocca, managing editor of Deadspin, said on Twitter that it took Dickey and Burke five days to report the story. It’s an amazing piece of journalism, and they deserve every plaudit they’ve received for it. But let’s not pretend this required them to do years of research and travel the earth to find the story. They just simply had to start digging. The crime is that they’re the only ones who thought to.
(A note, by the way, on some criticism of Deadspin quoting a source who was "80 percent sure" that Te’o was in on the deception. Yahoo’s Pat Forde, a very smart man and a good reporter, wrote that "that's a significant, character-assassinating allegation to pin on a source who is '80 percent sure.'" There’s probably a time to have a discussion about what level of assurance one needs to hit to feel comfortable going live with a story, but it’s probably not on the heels of the entire sports media printing a story that was 100 percent untrue. It’s certainly strikes one as a strange time to start wagging a finger at Deadspin, that’s for sure.)
The fact is, this story exists because sports media wanted it to exist: It’s exactly the sort of easy, “inspiration” narrative that Notre Dame has specialized in for decades. But this isn’t a Notre Dame story; this is what happens when you report on sports as if they are some sort of metaphor for life, or that athletes are somehow more “inspirational” than regular people. This is what happens when you think sports are more than sports. This has always been a problem with sports media -- it is, to be frank, the primary reason that Deadspin was invented in the first place -- but it has worsened in an age where media is fractured, niche and struggling, where the primary goal is to get on the “Today” show or the front page of Yahoo, to get the clicks and exposure everyone is now so desperate for. Everybody who wrote “Manti Te’o’s Tragic Journey” stories got pats on the back for it because those stories went huge. That they weren’t true is not just something nobody checked -- it’s something nobody even thought to check. (Or didn’t have the staff to check.) When you have a hit story, hey, don’t rock the boat. Times are tough enough as is.
In this way, it’s sort of like the steroid story in baseball, in microcosm. A complicit press corps misses the story that’s right in front of their face, if they had just thought to look for it -- either willfully or just because of laziness/ineptitude/inertia -- and then, when the truth comes out, they scramble to overcompensate. You’ll be seeing that in the coming days, as more and more aspects of this story are revealed, and we all find out just who we can “blame” for this. There will have to be someone to burn at the stake, someone to serve as the stand-in for the story everybody missed. We were all duped before: Now, we will make up for it. We will not be duped again.
But, of course, we will. The truth is, people will always want inspirational stories about athletes: To think that this is the first time a narrative has been concocted for maximum tear-inducement is to be as naïve as we are now expected to believe Te’o was. Sure, for a while, we’ll all do our due diligence and make sure we see the death certificate. But stories like this are what drive the machine. These have been the very foundation of sportswriting since there was sportswriting. The surprise is not the Manti Te’o story. The surprise is that this doesn’t happen all the time. Then again: Maybe it does.
Obvious disclosures: I’m friends with Craggs, Dickey and Burke, and I founded Deadspin. That did not stop me from getting schnookered just like everybody else. Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.