17 January 2013

Sports and Reality; or, Taking Te’o

By Shamus
Charlotte, NC

Like many sports fans, I was distracted yesterday by that breaking news regarding Notre Dame senior linebacker and Heisman trophy candidate Manti Te’o. Distracted from that other hoax-of-the-moment story, anyway, involving Lance Armstrong and his upcoming confessional with Oprah, the first part of which airs tonight.

I mean, with a teaser screaming in all caps that “MANTI TE’O’S GIRLFRIEND DID NOT EXIST” from the left side of the screen on ESPN, it was hard not to take notice.

Such a headline reminded me of idly standing in the supermarket checkout line and seeing the latest Weekly World News shocker about a human head kept alive six days or Dick Cheney being a robot or new developments concerning Bat Boy. Hard not to turn away.

The reporting on ESPN and everywhere else arrived in a couple of stages, the first of which was prompted by the original report by Deadspin who broke the sucker. Indeed, a hard-to-ignore subplot in all of this is the manner in which reporting tends to happen nowadays -- not just in sports, but all areas -- with hundreds of different outlets often re-reporting items appearing elsewhere.

It was late afternoon when the initial story appeared reporting that “Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking and Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax.” The carefully prepared piece begins by outlining in great detail the original story concerning Te’o having learned in early September of his grandmother’s death, then only hours later being told that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had died as well following a bout with leukemia. That story of a high-profile athlete dealing with loss while leading his team to an undefeated season was told many times over all season, and thus was mostly familiar to all reading Deadspin yesterday.

Peppered all through Deadspin’s presentation are quotes from various outlets’ reporting of that original story, including Sports Illustrated, ESPN, the South Bend Tribune, Fox Sports, CBS, the New York Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press. It was, after all, a “heartbreaking and inspirational story.” And everyone repeated it endlessly throughout the football season, right up until Notre Dame was crushed by Alabama in the BCS title game 42-14.

Then comes the less familiar part of the tale in which Deadspin presents evidence suggesting the high likelihood that there was no person named Lennay Kekua at all. This part of the story appears to have been sourced in large part by a friend of a person named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the apparent perpetrator of the hoax.

Here Deadspin tells us how Te’o’s relationship with “Lennay” was apparently entirely conducted online or via phone, despite suggestions by Te’o himself indicating the relationship was more involved and included meetings in person. The article even suggests the possibility that Te’o was complicit, too, with the invention of such a supporting character in his life and the story of her death, something done “with publicity in mind.” Such an idea makes little sense outside of a cynical interpretation of the “campaigning” often associated with players’ candidacies for the Heisman trophy, and in fact even within that context is difficult to fathom.

The second stage of the reporting yesterday began an hour or so later when Notre Dame sent out an official response to the story identifying Te’o as having been victimized by a hoax. Then Te’o himself made a statement expressing embarrassment, and a little later on ND Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick held a press conference addressing the situation further. Swarbrick repeated the University’s defense of Te’o as an unwitting victim, interestingly evoking the controversial 2010 documentary Catfish and spin-off MTV television show by way of explanation.

The film and television show both explore the phenomenon of fraudulent online relationships -- specifically romantic ones -- in which one party dupes the other regarding the actual details of his or her identity. The film spells out the catfish metaphor by referring to the practice of fishermen putting catfish in tanks full of cod in order to keep the cod active (thereby producing better-tasting cod). In other words, the “catfish” are those who kind of “stir things up,” one might say, by creating fictional online personae which spur others to action.

In any event, today we’re left with more back-and-forthing within the echo chamber as the media continue to try to recount and comment upon the story’s many twists and turns, with the goal of resolving the question of Te’o’s own knowledge of the hoax -- Was he in on it? Or was Te’o taken? -- allegedly guiding the reporting.

I say “allegedly” because in reality most outlets probably aren’t so much motivated by journalistic ideals of truth-seeking as by commercial interests or even just plain old rubbernecking. You know, the “we must look” impulse that hits most of us when passing by something out of the ordinary like a traffic accident. Or headlines about robot Dick Cheney or the bat boy.

Speaking of being distracted, the story of Manti Te’o’s “girlfriend” has recalled for some that hubbub created during the BCS title game regarding the attention CBS commentator Brent Musberger gave to Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron’s girlfriend, Katherine Webb. As friend of Ocelot Sports “Mean Gene” Bromberg commented on Twitter this morning...

Gene’s comment got me thinking about why we enjoy watching sports in the first place. There are a host of reasons, obviously, including simply liking to watch others compete. We experience awe when watching players skillfully perform physically-demanding feats, or when teams work together to execute well-designed strategic plans. And the so-called “human interest” stories (like those concerning players’ off-the-field relationships) often intrigue us, too, insofar as they sometimes add a kind of contextual richness to the experience of watching a game play out.

But I think one of the most satisfying aspects of, say, watching a football game is the way it presents us with a conflict and then unambiguously resolves it. Sure, a blown call or three might raise doubts in our minds about whether or not the result was just, and even might produce disagreement among us regarding what we have witnessed. But we all nonetheless will agree on the reality of a game’s outcome. For example -- to answer Gene’s question -- Alabama won. And everyone knows it.

Meanwhile, a story like the one regarding Te’o and his non-existent girlfriend -- not there have really been many stories like it -- produces a very different sort of effect for most us. Here we’re presented with a conflict, and we know already the idea of finding a clear “resolution” is highly doubtful.

People often refer to sports as being somehow not part of the “real world,” that the fun and games they provide are themselves a huge distraction from what really matters. Yet the so-called “real world” is often a much more confusing place, full of ambiguity and contradiction and impossible-to-resolve conflicts that sometimes make us so crazy we find ourselves unsure about what is “real” and what it not.

So we turn to the game. Sure, the time we spend watching might be thought of as a “timeout” from the real world. But weirdly enough, the game often seems more “real” to us than what happens before or after.

Shamus is the author of the Hard-Boiled Poker blog.

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