About 36 hours after Deadspin broke the Manti Te’o story, I started to notice, on my Twitter timeline, a bunch of people calling me an asshole. Now, I haven’t worked at Deadspin for almost five years and had nothing to do with that story -- I learned about it the same time the rest of earth did -- but I understand: I founded Deadspin and will likely be associated with that place the rest of my life, even after Bleacher Report buys them in 2023 and just turns the joint into a series of penis slideshows. I’m OK with it.
Because people assumed I was still with Deadspin -- or just saw Deadspin in my Twitter bio -- the Twitter mentions were coming fast and furious. (And Deadspin itself was, of course, inundated with hate mail.) The viewpoint, coming almost entirely from Notre Dame fans, was clear: Deadspin had an anti-Notre Dame agenda, and they were just trying to take down Manti Te’o and their storied university from the get-go. Some examples:
I suppose I should have seen this coming. This is, after all, how most sports stories end up, particularly ones as fascinating, complex and mysterious as this one: With everyone retreating to their corners, circling the wagons, and deciding that if you’re not with us, YOU’RE A HATER. The Te’o story -- no matter how it turns out -- is pretty much the most jaw-dropping, stunning, sports story in recent memory, but we’re all busy sanding down its edges and turning it into something dull, normal and manageable, because that’s what we all do.
We still know so little, after all. Almost all the information that has been added since the original Deadspin report has been anecdotal. An original Deadspin source (then-unnamed) has, in the glare of a global spotlight, slightly backed off his initial thoughts. An exhausted-looking Jeremy Schaap said he believed Te’o during their off-camera interview. Someone said Ronaiah Tuiasosopo had been running this scam for years, but his family seems to deny that, and we don’t know who that person is anyway. The fact is: This story is becoming more obscured with time, not less. We will all rush to fill a vacuum of information, and we’re all filling it with our own biases rather than facts.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I think the fact that Te’o has avoided an upfront interrogation about the facts of this situation (and that his story, I’m sorry, just doesn’t make sense, no matter how supposedly trusting he is) means he’s hiding something … but I have no factual basis to think that other than my own intuition, and it’s possible I just think that way because of my association with Deadspin and/or a natural tendency toward distrust of public figures. And I can’t shake the nagging feeling that Te’o doesn’t owe me, or any of us, any damn explanation anyway: He’s a 22-year-old kid who has been playing football for our amusement, gratis, for several years now and is suddenly being called on the carpet for one of the dumb things that 22-year-olds do.
But the same narratives that allowed the Te’o Dead Girlfriend story to exist in the first place are popping back up again. The “catfish” phrase has already attached itself to this story within minutes -- based off a movie I sort of hate -- even though there’s about as much proof that this was a “catfishing” and “hoax” story as there is it wasn’t. Our culture does not naturally have room for confusion and bewilderment, so everyone just started guessing: Te’o is the victim of a scam; Te’o is a lying weirdo; Te’o is gay and trying to hide it; Te’o is just a symptom of how everyone is out to get Notre Dame. The one that seems to have settled is the “Te’o is a naïve kid who fell prey to a scam,” and you get a sense that’s the one that’s going to stick.
Is it true? We are beginning to reach the point where it does not matter. Deadspin’s Timothy Burke told SI’s Richard Deitsch that he doesn’t think the real story will ever come out. "Too many people who have stakes in it have already stated what their positions are, and once people tell their side of the story, they tend to stick to it for a very long time," he told Deitsch. I’m sad to say it, but I’m pretty sure he’s right. Te’o is talking to Katie Couric on Thursday night, and while Sarah Palin will remind you that Couric isn’t quite the easy mark you might think she is, the story is already starting to hit that “OK, now we’re all just picking on the kid” point that is beginning to signify a saturation point.
(Side note: I’m not sure how the news that Couric and Te’o have the same spokesperson makes any difference. Matthew Hiltzik has a hard-earned reputation as the go-to guy for brands in immediate crisis, and he has an excellent eye for the right places to go for brand management. I’ve even worked with him myself: Hiltzik is spokesperson for a lot of people, not just Couric: There are reasons to be suspicious of some issues involved here, but I don’t see how Hiltzik’s connection to Couric is one of them. The larger “issue” is that he’s really good at helping people out in these situations; Te’o’s handlers knew what they were doing when they went to Hiltzik.)
This is all to say: We are not a culture that has the attention span to dutifully go down every possible rabbit hole a story like this opens. I get a sense that we’re all just about done with it: If you keep bringing it up, you’re out to get the kid, you hate Notre Dame, you’re just trying to get pageviews, so on. Sure, Te’o will never hear the end of this, and even if he makes 15 Pro Bowls, this will be the first line of his obituary. But I bet in a week, this story is almost completely dead, and it’ll just be replaced by a new scandal, one that’s simpler than this one, one that has clearer villains and heroes. (Basically: Another Lance Armstrong story.) That’s all fine and good -- Te’o should be able to get back to his life, after all -- except for the small detail that we’re probably not gonna ever find out, you know, what the hell happened.
Seriously: I LOVE Notre Dame. I have a football signed by every member of the 1966 championship team, and I spent most of the BCS Title Game cheering for the Irish … and wondering why Te’o was playing so terribly. 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.