No One Knows

The Manti Te'o Girlfriend Hoax is a great story. So why does it feel so bad?
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No one knows. Everyone starts their stories on the story of Manti Te'o's fake girlfriend by mentioning that, although it's obvious that no one knows. No one really knows more than a few of the facts in the case, or the reasons for the hoax, or the ways and means and especially the desired ends. The list of people who conclusively know all the facts involved consists of: 1) the younger cousin of a former Oakland Raiders backup quarterback and possibly 2) Manti Te'o. That's about it.

Even Deadspin's excellent story could only burrow so deeply before hitting some impenetrable center—the point at which the specificity of the involved lies harden into something granitic and opaque that can be opened only from the inside. The reactions and columns and recycled Twitter joke—a half-dozen variations of "Brent Musberger still thinks Te'o's girlfriend is hot" rim-shotted through my feed within the first hour of the story breaking—the speculation based on what the speculator want sthe story to be, or what they think they've picked up from watching several episodes of Catfish—we are in for a lot more of this, because this is all there is.

That, and that old footage on "Sportscenter" of Te'o relating this once-heartbreaking story: about how Lennay Kekua was the bravest person he knew, their eight-hour overnight phone calls, her spiritual guidance. Had I, or you or most anyone, viewed the footage at a time when this story was not unfolding and Te'o's unraveling, I would have believed Te'o to be speaking truthfully. His eyes glistened; his voice wavered; his demeanor was both slumped and firm as he tried to articulate just how powerfully his girlfriend's ordeal had affected him. If it was acting, then he's got a future in teaching athletes how to sucker the public to the best of their ogre-ish physicality. There seemed to just be two possibilities: either Te'o was secretly a Patrick Bateman-ian psychopath who was both gleefully willing and fully capable of fully convincingly masking his true feelings—not out of the question—or a deeply dopey human being who fell for the same "there's a girl from the Internet who's super into you, only you can never meet her ever" trick I fell for at the age of 11, except that it took him a year instead of two days to connect the dots.

Those are the options right now. But there's no doubt that if I'd seen the interview when it originally ran, I would've believed in Te'o and his Hallmark sentiment; I would've wanted this hulking Hawaiian, who had suffered so much, to win the Heisman Trophy and the BCS Championship Game; I would've listened to his sobered, adult perspective on perseverance and death and thought to myself, as so many of the professional journalists who listened to him tell his story did, "There's a guy who gets it." I would've felt better by believing in Manti Te'o, and I wouldn't have been alone.

***

The opiatic comfort of believing in something, and wanting to believe in something, is at the heart of what can make sports so powerful. "We Believe," the shirts announce come the postseason, and even non-fans do—if not in a given team than in something transformative and elevating and occasionally transcendent at work. Sports are a distraction, or a type of popular art, but the way they play with belief can make the stories they tell so slippery, so fast-growing: belief metastasizes, need and want are conflated, and we wind up someplace weird.

Sports, in a sense, helps train us to tell the difference between a reasonable and unreasonable expectation, and learn how to enjoy the good more than being brought down by the bad. (These are good life skills, too, as it turns out.) It teaches us, in a relatively safe space, the limits and uses of belief. When a given good is revealed to have been founded on quicksand—and whatever it was that powered Manti Te'o's belief, and whatever his part in it, much of it is clearly a lie—it becomes apparent that just believing won't do the trick. This is when we demand proof, and accountability.

It's not just Deadspin's responsibility to do all that legwork, though I wouldn't be surprised if one of their employees is already busy at hand. (One would hope any of the dozens of fooled media outlets would take a proactive approach toward remedying their cluelessness, although there are all kinds of structural and logistic and economic reasons why they probably won't.) The story that Dickey and Burke told is impressive, well-wrought and very well-reported and clearly the result of a hungry, healthy skepticism that other outlets clearly lacked. But it's not just deflated belief that makes the story feel so bad.

***

What, to drop the central question for a minute, should be the point of publishing any #longform #bombshell in the present age? Is it just trying to deduce the midpoint between the dogged pursuit of truth and exposed corruption and the business requirement of trawling for traffic, and then getting to that spot? It's probably more than that—the Deadspin story, as Tommy Craggs explained it to Poynter, was also a corrective to a certain maudlin credulity on the part of the rest of sports media. All to the good.

But again, there's the awful way this feels. Notre Dame is a Hallowed Institution, and one that benefited from controlling such a scam for publicity's sake, whether or not anyone in charge was in on the joke; this is the sort of story people want to believe about Notre Dame. If Deadspin exposed the calculated campaign of a handful of asshole college kids and opportunistic university officials to manipulate millions so that they could earn millions, the site achieved as noble an outcome as any journalist could hope to achieve. That or—or that and—the story publicly ruined the life of what might be a sheltered and highly gullible 22-year-old, who should probably be placed on suicide watch right now. That bit isn't funny at all.

There's a good deal of dark space between those Pandora's Binaries, obviously. There's ever reason to hope that good journalism, by Deadspin or some other shamed outlet willing to squint hard at a picture-perfect image, will bring those shadows into focus. It's a good thing that there are people willing to go through the call-placing confirm-or-deny grind on stories like this one, or the next one. It doesn't necessarily feel good going down, but this is a service to fans.

And a little disbelief would clearly do the sports world some good. We live in and with the Ray Lewis paradox: stuck between wanting to admire someone for his boundless, heartfelt play and the knowledge that he may have been complicit in a double murder. So what then? Stay a Ravens fans? Do you (gulp) root for the Patriots? Figure out how to stop caring about this shit and just enjoy about what's on the field for the art that it is?

When sports become just another of the many things in the culture that we are supposed to reflexively mistrust, the point of paying such close attention becomes less self-evident. Sure, there's the tradition and the community and the experience of jovially shouting obscenities at people you don't know from under the warm blanket of a Bud Light Lime buzz. But sports are still primarily something that we're supposed to enjoy. They're an escape, or to paraphrase Fredorrarci, a TV show. And when the slope slips from "Boy, I bet Western Kentucky wasn't just hiring Bobby Petrino because they wanted to rehab a wayward spirit" to "Boy, I guess Lance Armstrong had ulterior motives when he said he wanted to cure cancer" to "Boy, I bet this guy made up his leukemia-ridden dead girlfriend"—well, where are we, when we reach the bottom of that slope? Healthy skepticism, or abject pessimism? (The National Post's Bruce Arthur: "Oh God just realized Kevin Durant seems too good to be true.")

At what level does it become easier to walk away than to reflexively question even the most innocuous positive? When is the escape too much like the thing we're escaping, and the whole thing too exhausting? It depends, of course. No amount of rule-changing and editorial mandating will change the largely silly ways in which people interact with sports—in which sports are served and consumed—any time soon. The stroke we choose to swim through all this is up to us.

And, of course, we can always just get out. While Twitter continued to carp last night, I went out with a few friends who have no interest or care in college football. Unable to resist myself, I brought up the story and spent a few seconds summarizing the primary angles and details; they awed at how insane a drama it seemed, and then we moved on. It was surprisingly easy to do. It was all still there when I got back.


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