Te’o & an epic fail of journalism, culture

Maybe you believe star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o had nothing to do with the hoax that allegedly broke his heart.

teo-cover-resizeMaybe you buy that an online relationship could serve as the foundation for a hero-triumphs-over-heartache story.

Maybe you swallow what Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick is serving up with online hoaxes, social media ills, ” a lot of tragedy,” and real tears.

I do not know Manti Te’o and I hope — for everyone’s sake — that it is all true.

This bizarre story of a made-up girlfriend, uncovered today by Deadspin (and Ohio University Scripps School alum Timothy Burke), is an indictment of many things, Te’o included, to be sure.

It is also an indictment of mainstream sports journalism and the culture surrounding college football. Neither should be let off the hook.

When the story broke Wednesday afternoon, Twitter lit up with everything from pressing questions of Notre Dame’s processes to immature jokes.

One inquisitive stone not left unturned was to ask how could Sports Illustrated‘s Pete Thamel — an award-winning, talented sports reporter — be so duped? Why didn’t he — or any other number of reporters who regurgitated the story — check for the girlfriend’s death certificate? Why didn’t anyone talk to the girlfriend’s family? Why did everyone take Te’o at his word?

There are two answers to this question and the first involves basic sports journalism.

Sports journalists are both lulled and bullied into believing coaches, players and university administrators.

When a player tells us he loves his teammates, we believe it. When a coach insists us his players gave 100 percent, we buy it. When an athletic director confirms he hired the best guy for the job, we swallow it. This is how we are lulled.

And we are bullied when Tony LaRussa kicks Associated Press reporters out of the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse for asking about Mark McGwire’s supplements, when Washington’s Steve Sarkisian and USC’s Lane Kiffin won’t answer questions about injuries, and when Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy berates Oklahoman columnist Jenni Carlson and is heralded by ESPN’s talking heads for “sticking up” for his players.

We believe these people because they allegedly are the experts, the only ones who know, or the ones who apparently know best.

Even after everything we have learned in the last several years, Te’o proves we still believe them. Lance Armstrong swore up and down that he didn’t cheat. Joe Paterno was adamant that he didn’t know.  Gordon Gee was not going to fire Jim Tressel. And Manti Te’o’s girlfriend died the same day as his grandmother just before an inspiring performance on the field.

There is another reason we believe them. And, it does have to do with the journalists, but only as they are parts of a culture that simply craves this overplayed, underreported narrative. It is a dominant narrative informed by a rugged masculinity.  We crave these stories of men of violence and valor, and tradition and toughness. If emotion dawns upon these men, we need them to overcome.

There is no room for failure — we only hear of it in sensationalistic terms, then after it is overcome.

We want Armstrong to win fairly. We want Joe Paterno to have never known of the child rape occurring in his locker room. We want to believe the fairy tale so implicitly that we do not bother ourselves with the hassle of verification.

And it comes back to bite us in the ass over and over.

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