Manti Te'o: lies, hoaxes, opinion leaders, and what it all means

Deer in the headlights - Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

In what is unquestionably the biggest college football story since Jerry Sandusky (but for completely different reasons), all of us are left with a lot of questions and very few answers.

Okay.

By now you have read the incredible piece of journalism on Deadspin.com about Manti Te'o, his "girlfriend" and a hoax of epic proportions. This may seem like a bit of an overstatement, but if you really think about it, this is a huge story. It is huge because Manti Te'o almost won the Heisman. It is huge because Notre Dame was in the National Championship game ten days ago. It is huge because the whole thing approaches a shot-for-shot remake of a movie none of us has seen with a funny title.

But it is also huge because it duped almost every single media member who followed it, from high atop the sports news mountain, to the lowly Hot Pocket festooned mom's basements of the blogosphere. If it was a hoax played on all parties, then it was simply one of the best, most elaborate tricks ever played in sports journalism, plain and simple. On the other hand, if it was actually plot to gain publicity for a future first round draft pick and Heisman contender, then it was *this* close to being a complete success. The line between those two scenarios is incredibly blurry right now, and may always be. But it certainly isn't uninteresting.

Tell me you didn't think that Te'o, even when the college football punditry was all but calling the Heisman Trophy for Johnny Manziel, didn't have a better than average shot of shocking the world and winning the famous stiff-arm trophy. I sure did. When the candidates were announced, and Te'o was among those headed to New York, there was little that didn't seem perfect about his candidacy. He had the stats, and certainly he had the on-field performance.

But more than that, he had the narrative driving his campaign, and those stories are now legend, in every sense of the word. His game against Michigan State, an upset at the time, was hailed as being one of the more gutsy performances in the last decade, as Te'o dealt with the death of not only his grandmother but his would-be-should-be-wasn't girlfriend, all in the same week. Te'o often referred to Lennay Kekua in interviews, on television, in print, everywhere. But, as we all know now (at least most of us), Lennay never existed, and the performance against Sparty, while excellent, is suddenly sullied by the facts of the last 24 hours.

Today in the sports world, we will be asking questions about the whole bloody affair; who knew what, who did what, and how did serious, professional journalists (TV and print) completely miss the story. The morning after, I'm left with two such questions.

1. Was Manti Te'o the victim or the perpetrator?

No need to bury the lede, folks; this is the biggest question of them all in this whole saga. Manti Te'o won over a lot of hearts and minds with his story of overcoming adversity to lead his team to an undefeated regular season and a birth in the national title game. He almost won the sport's most prestigious award in the process (and did end up winning many others).

Is the bloom off the rose for Te'o? Probably not. Notre Dame, through their athletic director Jack Swarbrick, lined up steadfastly in front of and behind their star linebacker, most notably in a tear-filled press conference that called Te'o "the perfect mark" for a hoax like this. And I think it's fair to think along the same lines as Notre Dame to think of Te'o as the victim in this whole situation. I'm by no means a Notre Dame fan, and I'm hoping that Te'o comes out of this relatively unscathed, because he seems like a genuinely good kid who was led down a very dark rabbit hole.

But (and there's always a but), this is the world of big time college football, and big time college football often leads to playing the game on Sundays rather than Saturdays. Te'o was probably destined to do just that from the day he put on his first set of pads, through to the day he passed on USC for South Bend, and up and until he came oh so close to being the first defensive player to win the Heisman in over a decade. The financial difference alone from being a top-10 draft pick to being a late second round pick is wider than a football field - we're talking millions of dollars. Winning a Heisman, overcoming long odds and having unquestioned character goes a long way to shrink that gap.

If it turns out that Te'o was the "Catfisher" and not the "Catfishee" in this whole scenario, then where in the name of everything that we think is sacred in our sport do we re-draw the lines? And as for Te'o, as one Illinois sports reporter put it, he's either a loser or a lunatic, and there's not much middle ground there.

2. How did everyone in the media get so thoroughly and utterly duped?

ESPN (along with every other major sports news site) operates in much the same was as CNN, MSN or Fox News, they just do so in the sports realm. News exists, it goes through a channel to ESPN, then ESPN disseminates that information to the waiting public, via their news people and pundits.

There's communications theory about how this process works, and why it works is due to the credibility of ESPN's hired "opinion leaders". These are guys like Kirk Herbstreit, Joe Schad, Pollack & Palmer and even Fat Urkel himself. We believe what they say because we are conditioned to do so - ESPN even puts resumes on screen with their pundits to remind us of their credibility.

Usually the system works, and the correct information, along with thorough and two-sided analysis, is passed to the public quickly and efficiently. In this case, however, everyone, from ESPN to SI to the South Bend Tribune, got it so very wrong. But how and why did this happen?

As I'm often wont to do, I'll let Lori Schmidt, a professional reporter, shed some light on this.

I guarantee that every reporter who’s been in the business for a good stretch has been fed a false lead. I’m not talking about the guy who e-mails what they heard from a friend of a friend who might have been involved in something. I’m talking about correspondence with someone who relays with an almost religious fervor that there’s a story you must look into if you’re worth your journalistic salt.

In the days ahead, I imagine we will be hearing a lot about why some journalists did what they did and believed what they believed. In the end, I am forced to think that the reason so many people believed so much about something that was so untrue was that the story was just too good not to believe it. Had Notre Dame gone on to shock Alabama and win the title, there would already be books published on the topic, and movie scripts ready to be purchased. Screw Rudy; this is the real underdog story.

But it turns out that everyone in the media has woken up today with more than a little egg on their face. The story is a lie, a hoax, and it was promulgated by a media machine that just wanted to be optimistic about someone in college football, in a time where optimism is in incredibly short supply (see: Sandusky, Jerry; Shapiro, Nevin).

We are at a crossroads - as fans and journalists and bloggers, three groups that are more and more existing on the same plane. As fans, we were duped by a story that turned was too good to be true. Journalists were caught up in the exact same hoax, reporting a story that simply wasn't true, and was far deeper than any of us could imagine. Leave it to the bloggers, those like Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, who exposed the truth we know so far, to be the ones who did the leg work that everyone else missed.

Do we blame the media for running along with a story that is now debunked? Did Manti Te'o know what was going on the whole time, or was he a pawn in someone else's elaborate game of deception chess? We may never get the answers we need to fully satisfy the myriad questions that began yesterday. But when (and if) they do come out, can we even believe the response anymore?

Mark Twain said that truth is often stranger than fiction. After yesterday, he couldn't be more right.

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