Notes on a Scandal: Manti Te’o and the Media

As we start to take stock of 2013, a look back at the year’s most perplexing sports story

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Have you heard the one about the Notre Dame linebacker with a 3.3 GPA–the defensive captain named a first-team academic all-American–who had no idea that the late love of his life, his famously leukemia-stricken girlfriend and soul mate, had never existed and in fact had been concocted by an amateur religious musician and failed quarterbacking prospect from the Tuiasosopo football pseudo-dynasty? Yeah, sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

When my Deadspin then-colleagues and I broke the story in January that Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had never existed — my brain still scrambles when I type that phrase — we figured we’d have a healthy-sized traffic spike from college football fans. Instead we had the biggest story in the site’s history: 4.2 million hits, at last count. TV bookers installed our pallid mugs on every program you can think of. ESPN, the muscled buck at which we’d usually nip like fleas, devoted hours of coverage to the story and had to credit us endlessly. It peeved them, and that was the fun of it.

But the wall-to-wall coverage of the story — which culminated in Te’o’s supposedly soul-baring sitdowns with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap and Katie Couric, and hoaxster Ronaiah Tuiasosopo’s two-part “Dr. Phil” extravaganza, which is to say nothing of all the ex-jocks gabbing about locker-room taunts and possible hush-hush homosexuality–only distanced us all from the truth about Lennay Kekua. Te’o told Schaap and Couric about all the hours they spent on the phone together, and the few near-misses he and Kekua had in the flesh. Nowhere was it explained satisfactorily how, in this age– the year of our lord Steve Jobs 2013 — the couple had never video chatted. (So her computer didn’t work. Did she know anyone with an iPhone?) Te’o never explained, either, why he couldn’t juggle his flights to spend a little time with his comatose lover in San Diego, because he couldn’t possibly explain it. He admitted having lied to journalists on one occasion. That’s not the worst thing an NFL player has done, but it shot through everything we were told about Te’o’s character, his courage, his incorruptibility.

And yet, when another TIME colleague was assembling one of these year-end lists, for “most over-reported stories,” he suggested the Te’o saga. (He did it within earshot, on purpose, knowing I would turn cross. I laughed but then protested.) Over-reported? Please. We still don’t know what happened! The official account of things, the one the public decided to believe after all the dust settled — that poor Manti Te’o actually believed he was deeply in love with a person who never existed — isn’t borne out by the answers he gave to Katie. I have no doubt Manti Te’o was hoaxed at one point. And I have no doubt, either, that he allowed, through obfuscation or dishonesty, the story of his dead girlfriend to become much bigger than it could have been.

Te’o has gone off to the NFL now, so the morality of it all doesn’t matter much to anyone. (Only the Golden Domers, and the college football journalists who buy into the program’s central myths, feed on that stuff.) He’s had an underwhelming, injury-filled rookie campaign with San Diego, returning to the relative anonymity befitting an inside linebacker.

But there’s still a little consequence to the story, if only as a piece of media criticism. The first thing, which we learned while reporting our story: Some sportswriters are so desperate to tell sob stories that they’ll elude the clutches of the facts, as though they were Alabama running backs in the national championship game. And the second, which we learned while defending our reporting and our conclusions: If any story appears on television long enough, bombarding people with facts and dates and long names, the public will eventually consider the matter settled. Even if the story itself is far from it.