Trust, but verify. That three-word phrase popularized by Ronald Reagan is a valuable lesson the sports media could use today, less than 24 hours after Deadspin broke one of the most bizarrely fascinating stories sports has ever seen. It turns out the most riveting and inspirational story of the 2012 college football season, the one in which Notre Dame’s star linebacker Manti Te’o was at the center, was a fraud, a hoax perpetuated either by Te’o himself or by a group of people who found the perfect mark.
Te’o, we heard all season, was playing through the adversity of the deaths of his grandmother and his girlfriend, who died, depending on which report you read, either on the same day or within days of each other last fall. The story erupted when Te’o led the Fighting Irish to an upset victory over Michigan State just days after the deaths; it ended up as a centerpiece of Te’o's Heisman Trophy campaign and Notre Dame’s surge to the national championship game. It was reported widely, first by the South Bend Tribune, then by Sports Illustrated and ESPN, and later by other national outlets like CBS News. It was a heart-stirring story, the kind sports journalists love to tell. In a world of cynicism, stories like Te’o's are gold.
The problem, as Deadspin exposed, is that the girlfriend, the one with whom Te’o supposedly spent hours on the phone as she suffered from leukemia, never had leukemia. She never died. She never even existed.
Why it happened, and what exactly happened, is unclear. Notre Dame and Te’o maintain that he was the victim of an elaborate hoax, and an NFL player claims the woman is “real.” Te’o and family members claim to have met her, and Te’o talked about her at a Jan. 3 press conference, a week after he supposedly found out it was a hoax. Did Te’o and his family perpetrate the hoax to make him more marketable, or was he a dupe who was taken advantage of by others? We’ll likely find out more about that as the days wear on, particularly now that the media has turned its attention to digging up every detail.
That the sports media failed to verify Te’o's story and subsequently built up a heroic story that was nothing more than a fraud, however, is painfully obvious.
This, unfortunately, is a familiar pattern in sports, where heroes are built on against-the-odds or larger-than-life stories that aren’t verified or properly vetted until it’s too late. Then, when a story-shattering revelation comes to the surface, the media forgets the image it helped create and turns its attention to destroying that image piece by piece. Little attention is ever paid to its own role in the process.
The same hero worship built the story of Lance Armstrong: American Hero well before he became perhaps the biggest cheat in the history of sports. It led us to marvel at the accomplishments of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens without allowing for the possibility that they might all be cheating. When those heroes turned out to be myths, stories written by the same people who once canonized the athlete turn them instead into the villain, often without a hint of introspection or remorse. Te’o may or may not join that company. It is still too early to tell if he was the villain or the victim. Regardless, he was the hero in an accepted tale that turned out to be false.
Sometimes, the failure of the narratives we build have no consequence. Whether Te’o is a liar or a dupe matters little — it will hurt him, but for the world at large, it will ruin little more than a great story. Sometimes, though, that failure has major consequences, like when a hero the media helped create helps cover up the molestation of a dozen children. Either way, we could all stand to be a little more skeptical, even when we don’t feel it is necessary.
Sports journalists — and I am not painting myself as an exception, since though I never wrote about Te’o, I can’t say definitively I would have verified every detail of his story had I chosen to — too often forget that we too are gatekeepers, that amid the games, the drama, and the hoopla, we too have an obligation to the truth not just on the field but off it as well. We too often forget that our heroes are still human and turn them instead into flawless role models worthy of admiration not just for their inhuman feats but for their stories, the odds they have overcome and the lives they lead. When our heroes fail as humans always do, when the heroic stories turn out to be lies, it becomes a mad scramble to demolish the images we helped build. The athletes failed you, we tell the world, excusing no one but ourselves.