Tale of Te'o Puts Sports Media at Crossroads

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The Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax is a media-watcher’s feast. The Notre Dame football star adamantly denies any complicity in the scheme and insists he was duped in a stunt straight out of Catfish. While it will take time to sort out what he and school officials knew and when they knew it, the media’s dropping of the ball is abundantly clear.

Pretty much every major outlet covering the Heisman race and the college football season abandoned any notion of prudence, fact-checking or a journalist’s natural skepticism. They willingly bought into a touching drama of a star athlete overcoming personal tragedy despite an array of inconsistencies in the story. Te’o became a rare bright spot in the scandal-ridden realm of college sports, especially the sport of football, which spent late 2012 reeling from the Jerry Sandusky fallout. By all accounts, a rare combination of soft-spoken grace off the field and fiery excellence on it, he created a perfect soft-focus narrative arc, the kind that fills magazine feature wells, morning-show segments and Olympics broadcasts.

A few takeaways we’d like to see come out of the Tale of Te’o:

Deadspin rising: The hoax is the biggest prize yet for Deadspin and its maligned/feared parent, Gawker Media. Long a burr under the saddle of ESPN and the rest of the sports media establishment, Deadspin broke the Te’o hoax story with an exhaustively reported and (by its usual standards) nuanced account. Editors have promised to continue serving up scoops. The blog has basked in the media spotlight before, with founding editor Will Leitch sparring with Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger on HBO in 2008 and NFL star Brett Favre’s sexts gaining wide traction in 2011. Questioning the status quo is a strength of Deadspin, never more so than in this case. If they continue that mission (and perhaps cut back on paying for scoops, as in the case of Favre), a TMZ-style multiplatform disruption could result. It would certainly create edgy new competition to the likes of 60 Minutes‘ new sports spinoff.

Sports fact-check: Sports media is getting its moment of soul-searching, as has happened in other sectors. Fact-checking/truth-telling sites such as The Smoking Gun or PolitiFact have changed the media game in other areas of society. Sports has often been (unfairly) seen as a less “serious” area of media, with local-TV anchors wearing team apparel and newspapers bending standards as they splash local scores across page one. In light of how shoddy the standards were in the case of Te’o, let’s hope this bombshell means a host of new voices emerging to provide a counterpoint to the headlong rush to anoint new heroes. Asking questions, and not merely regurgitating spoon-fed story lines, would help distinguish these new outlets in a competitive space. It sure would have been nice to have had more of that as Lance Armstrong was racking up Tour de France titles and beguiling the world with his ultimately bogus narrative.

Heisman insanity: Manti Te’o finished as the runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting, but that outcome came after a months-long campaign that took the annual tradition to new lows. The hoax depended on media being invested in the Heisman hype. Hopefully, the saga will prompt some serious reflection on the part of reporters who never thought to even search for an obituary for “Lennay Kekua,” the fake girlfriend. She just became more grist for the Heisman hustle, which not only starts too soon but also overshadows more meaningful parts of the game. Against that backdrop of hype, it is remarkably easy for on-field achievements to get eclipsed by personal color. As Te’o and the other finalists sat and fidgeted for two full hours at the New York Athletic Club in December, ESPN subjected viewers to a series of vignettes that would have made Bud Greenspan weep. Like other outlets profiting from the Heisman game, the network saw no need to hesitate on the way to building up the mythology of the fabled trophy. Unwittingly, it was helping perpetuate another myth altogether.