Overtime: On Manti Te’o



teoBWBy now you know the story: Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s girlfriend — the one who died before the Irish’s Sept. 15 road upset of Michigan State, and whose funeral Te’o skipped in order to play in Notre Dame’s victory over Michigan on Sept. 22 — never existed. As the frenzy around the story begins to die down, it’s time to ask what the Te’o saga can teach us.

As time went on, and Notre Dame’s victories kept stacking up, Te’o’s tale of perseverance — losing his girlfriend and his grandmother within hours of each other — became one of the college football season’s most repeated storylines. Gene Wojciechowski did a five-minute video feature for ESPN. Pete Thamel wrote a cover story for Sports Illustrated. The South Bend Tribune and Chicago Tribune and just about every newspaper in America talked about it. Had Deadspin not discovered it was all a farce, the Te’o story would have become one of those great myths, like Rudy and “win one for the Gipper.”

Media accounts included various details about Te’o’s supposed girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, but the story was never told the same way twice. The South Bend Tribune said the two met after Notre Dame played Stanford in 2009, where Kekua (supposedly a Stanford student) and Te’o exchanged phone numbers. “We met just, umm, just she knew my cousin. And kind of saw me there, so — just kind of regular,” Te’o told Thamel in the recently released transcript of their conversation. There are also conflicting reports of the date of her supposed car accident and the date she was diagnosed with leukemia. Of course, we now know that the reason no one could get their facts straight was because there were no facts in the first place — “Lennay Kekua” was an elaborate lie.

It’s hard to fault the media for running with Te’o’s story the way that they did. People eat that sort of stuff up. But since Deadspin first broke the story last Wednesday, Thamel and Wojciechowski have both said they found “red flags” while doing their original reporting. They were unable to find a death certificate or obituary for any person named Lennay Kekua. Thamel said he contacted someone at Stanford who said the school had no record of any such person. Why didn’t they try to dig deeper? Until Thamel and Wojciechowski were unable to find documents indicating Kekua was a real person, they had no reason to assume Te’o’s story wasn’t entirely factual, but once they had hesitations about whether it was true, you’d like to think that they would do all the necessary research to alleviate their doubts — especially considering that Te’o was the only source for any information about Kekua.

It’s unbelievable that ESPN and Sports Illustrated were scooped by Deadspin on this. ESPN and Sports Illustrated are both massive companies with extensive resources; in a recent radio interview, Jack Dickey — who co-authored the Te’o story with Tim Burke — described Deadspin as “ten guys in a room in New York.”

“ESPN is the biggest sports media company on the planet, and they got beat by a few dudes with computers,” Deadspin Editorial Assistant Tom Ley said on Twitter shortly after the story broke.

But the larger issue is that Te’o’s story became so popular in the first place. Baltimore Ravens receiver Torrey Smith faced a similar situation this fall, when his brother died in a motorcycle accident the night before a game. Smith went on to catch two touchdown passes. The difference between Te’o’s story and Smith’s (aside from the fact that Smith’s brother was a real person who actually died) is that the story of his brother’s death didn’t come to define Smith’s season the way the girlfriend story followed Te’o all year long.

Stories like that don’t really do it for me. I may be cold-hearted, but my reaction never really goes beyond, “Oh, good for him.” I watched that Ravens game and I did feel happy for Torrey Smith, but I’m also glad it didn’t get repeated as much as the Te’o story.

“[I]f there’s any lesson to be drawn from this, it’s that this kind of simpering crap should be eliminated from the sports pages entirely,” Deadspin Editor-in-Chief Tommy Craggs told the Poynter Institute via e-mail.

I’m inclined to side with Craggs here. Stories like the Te’o features, which focused on his dealing with loss are tough to do well. More often than not, they’re simply overwrought. The Te’o saga has shown us that they’re also dangerous. The writer knows that the sob story will have the reader eating out of his hand and can afford to get lazy with the reporting. If we had just focused on Manti Te’o the football player — and he is a very, very good football player — the revelation of the girlfriend hoax wouldn’t have been nearly as earth-shattering as it was.