Once Deadspin cracked open the case of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s fake dead girlfriend, the Internet and MSM were aflutter with discussions as they scrambled to keep up.
Perhaps the biggest bit of dickheadery came from the Boston Globe where Jim McBride, commenting on getting his ass kicked on the story, scoffed at Deadspin as not being a paragon of journalistic virtue.
My own take on Deadspace has been one of high-risk, high-reward. In explaining this site to a group of young J-students from Wisconsin, I said Deadspace was akin to former Milwaukee Brewer Russell Branyan. He’d go 1-for-13 and those 12 outs were a horrific affront to the sport. However, when he connected, it was like Paul Bunyan hit the ball with a giant redwood.
In the case of the Te’o story, Deadspace has hit the ball so hard, it hasn’t landed yet.
The questions they are now asking point to the giant holes in Te’o’s story: A year-long relationship with a girl he never met, conflicting reports as to a car wreck she was or wasn’t in, the lack of an obituary for her once she died, the lack of registration records at Stanford and more. The media outlets that have drawn giant red circles around these inconsistencies, having never once thought to look for them on their own.
This post could go in a number of directions. We could start with our hero-worshiping approach to athletes that has gone on for generations. We could look into the way that we are once again seeing sports journalists shown as "inveterate jock sniffers," to quote the late Hunter S. Thompson, buying whatever athletes are selling for the most part. We could ask those “baffling” and “obvious” questions that only became “baffling” and “obvious” once Deadspin pointed out the logical lapses in Te’o’s tales. We could even look at the idea of humanity, in that most of us have been taught it is rude and impertinent to say, “So, this dead chick… You got a body you can show us?”
Instead, I’ll do my best to follow Deadspin’s lead and ask three rude and impertinent questions about this. I doubt they’ll hit the mainstream, but I think they’re areas people have yet to actually dig into, but probably should.
1) Did the reputation
of Notre Dame and its status as both an elite school (always) and an elite
football program (historically and once and again occasionally) play a role in
everyone buying the bullshit? Even more, does it allow us to continue to buy
the “Te’o was duped” line instead of the “Te’o made it all up” line?
I have had this conversation on a number of levels in a variety of ways recently. In talking to my class about their resumes, one of the kids asked if he should put education above experience when applying for journalism jobs. I told him, no, you need to let people know what you can do and have done. The education is secondary. Some of the kids gave me the “that’s because we go to a shitty school, right?” look, so I explained to them my experiences with “good” and “shitty” schools.
The dumbest kid I ever had at Mizzou was not better than the best kid I ever had here or anywhere else I taught. Being from the “Jesus H. Christ School of Fucking Journalism” didn’t make a dumb kid godlike. The degree, however, does have a bit of a “shiny” factor that some people like to use as a metric. To that end, if you are good at what you do, the degree and the “name program” won’t matter as much.
I’m not sure how much they believed me.
A student here also applied for the Politics in Journalism internship in D.C. this summer. When I talked to a guy who was helping facilitate the process, he told me (not for attribution) that they tended to rely on “strong programs” and “geographical concerns” as part of their factors in determining. In other words, if we pick a kid from a “name program” and the kid goes to shit, at least we can say, “Hey, how were we to know? I mean, he goes to NORTHWESTERN!” (The secondary element is “If we can get a local kid and it will only cost him bus fare to cover the White House, we’re fine too.”)
When I wrote the letter for my kid, I made a strong push against that notion, arguing that easy and safe tend to be bullshit factors. Take the risk on the kid from a branch school who would run into traffic for a story. She got the gig.
In the case of Te’o and Notre Dame, I’m wondering if this “name program” idea applies. Kids from UNLV? Hey, they’re the “Running Felons!” When they were winning the national championship in basketball, they had gone from “Tumbleweed Tech” to these “thugs and hoodlums” with gold teeth and ghetto swagger. During the HBO documentary on the Runnin’ Rebels, several people made a point that the NCAA investigated coach Jerry Tarkanian and found as many rule violations as possible. Meanwhile, UCLA’s “paragon of virtue” team and coach John Wooden were unmarred at the time by their relationship with notorious booster Sam Gilbert.
In the ESPN documentary “Pony Exce$$,” the NCAA began finding rule violations once Southern Methodist University became important on the national scene. These included things like dinners for athletes on recruiting trips and an assistant coach playing racquetball with a kid on a trip. The self-serving response from SMU was that this was selective enforcement. However, outside observers also noted that SMU became the new “fastest gun in the West” but lacked friends in the NCAA to help keep the dogs away. Meanwhile, other programs, such as Texas, often went unscathed.
Notre Dame is a double “name school” whammy: It’s the program everyone knows about and it’s also one that has built a reputation for itself as being a “cut above” in terms of student athletes. Hall of Famer and Notre Dame grad Paul Hornung got in trouble on a radio show when he suggested Notre Dame needed to lower its standards to get more black athletes. Part of the rage, obviously, was the issue of race, but an equal number of people pushed back on the issue of virtue.
I would argue that Notre Dame’s status not only kept people from digging into Te’o’s story, but is still keeping some of the more reticent vultures at bay in challenging his “I was duped story.”
2) Speaking of race, to what degree did Te’o’s status as a
minority impact the way people poked at this story and continue to poke at it?
This one is always a lot more delicate, as this country still hasn’t come to terms with the majority of its bugaboos in regard to race. As a prominent figure of Samoan descent, Te’o wasn’t exactly the Jackie Robinson of Polynesians, but there were more than a few people in the Poly community looking up to him. Many of them now are expressing outrage.
For years, the issue of how a predominantly white media looked at players of color has long dogged journalism. The stories Hank Aaron told of being quoted in his limited grammar and southern dialect are heartbreaking. So are the stories in which the Pittsburgh media quoted the late Roberto Clemente phonetically, allowing him to explain how he “heet bol gud.” Historians reviewing these topics were quick to note that the Southern Boys of Dixie likely didn’t speak in the King’s English, but got the benefit of the doubt when it came to reporters fixing quotes.
Today, the issue of race and sport isn’t as brutal, but wound is just as sensitive and the backlash capabilities of pundits is far greater than it ever was. Had a Wright Thompson, a Dan Shaughnessy or a Mike Lopresti started asking the “Hey, wait a minute…” columns on the kid, the Screaming A. Smiths of the world would be on them like a starving dog on a pork chop. And again, based on the shameful history of sports coverage and race, it wouldn’t be that hard to say, “Hey, if this were Johnny Manziel saying his girlfriend died, you’d believe his ass, you racist cracker.”
If you can say one thing about Deadspin, it’s that the publication really benefits from its status as an outsider and a shit-stirrer. The folks there go after everything all the time and don’t mind getting messy for any reason at all. It reminds me once of something I heard about a cranky old guy, spewing disparaging terms about a minority group at a bar: “He’s not racist. He hates everyone equally.”
3) Faith and religion are inextricably linked to both Te’o’s
own story (a devout Mormon) and the school’s storyline (a Catholic university
guided by a spiritual tradition, to quote the school’s own website). Were
people snowed (and are they continuing to be snowed) because of the religion
People of faith are given a pass. They are given the benefit of the doubt. Their mistakes are seen as honest ones, not malicious ones. They are shielded by the cloak of the “all-mighty” and their servitude to that being shows they are better, stronger, more decent and more trustworthy people than anyone else. The more they profess their faith, the more people tend to ascribe these characteristics to them.
In the case of a tie, the tie doesn’t go to the sinner.
That is why when they fall, they fall hard. And when they do fall, many of us tend to not want to believe their fallibility.
When I was a kid, the priest of our parish would call our house on some random Sunday night and ask my folks if he could take me out for dinner. Mom said, at the time, she never blinked an eye. When she was a kid, the priest would come over for dinner, plop her on his lap and tell stories all night.
The idea that these folks might be doing something unseemly with kids? C’mon… That’s ridiculous!
Now those swishy guys who moved in up the block? Hey, you’d better keep your kids away from that house!
When the abuse scandal finally cracked open, people didn’t want to see it until wave after wave of evidence drown their ability to ignore what had happened. Even now, people are clinging to their illusions, like they’re holding fast to a piece of driftwood in the wake of a shipwreck.
People of faith can be just as full of shit as the rest of us. Some of the most mean-spirited, vindictive and angry people I know are the people who pray the rosary once a day, go to church on every holy day and are unyielding in their support of religious doctrine.
Ted Haggard railed against drugs and gays, all the while he was more than sampling the goods.
Closer to home, when the Rev. Reggie White played for the Packers, he asked for help in rebuilding a church in Tennessee that was destroyed in an arson fire. The good folks of Wisconsin chipped in raised more than six-figures. The church was never rebuilt and no one knows where the money went.
Even Notre Dame seems to have been founded on faith and built out of Teflon. When the University of Miami played Notre Dame in the mid-1980s, fans of ND wore “Catholics vs. Convicts” T-shirts. Bernie Kosar, a Miami alumnus, noted more than once that he is a Catholic and that Notre Dame, at least in terms of football, is the least Christian environment in the world.
And yet, we can’t get around this idea that the narrative of faith is that of a better person and thus someone for whom the scrutiny of reality does not apply.
He was a nice kid who spoke openly about being a devout Mormon in a time in which a) Mormons carried with them the stank of Mitt Romney and b) people still aren’t buying what the Mormons are aggressively selling. He told us stories that made him even more sympathetic, one of which was even true (his dying grandmother). To quote Shattered Glass, “He handed us fiction after fiction and we printed them all as fact just because we found him entertaining.”
Even now, as the jackals in the MSM pick over the carcass of Deadspin’s kill and find more holes in obvious places, few writers are willing to say the linebacker has no clothes. Te’o is still getting the benefit of the doubt that he “might” have been duped by this random internet pseudo-chick he never met or only met once or he talked to every night or who he only discussed things with via Twitter and who died and was buried but never had an obituary…
Sorry. I have to stop. This kid is full of shit.
The fact I couldn’t hack it in his religion because I drink enough Diet Coke every day to drown a classroom full of third-graders and I like my Jack Daniel’s in a Mason Jar doesn’t force me to give him a pass. God might be infallible, but his followers here on Earth have more than their share of flaws.
If I end up being wrong on this one, I’ll do the decent thing and apologize.
In the mean time, I keep thinking that we’d be far less likely to trust Larry Johnson, Allen Iverson or any other angry, ugly “sinner” than we trust Te’o.
Answer these questions as you see fit.