The Te’o Hoax Should Kill The Pablum About The Morals Of Star College Athletes

Sports Illustrated

It’s really hard to separate an athlete’s skills from who he or she is as a person. These days it’s not enough to just be good at a sport.  An athlete has to have an inspirational story that will give fans, journalists, and most importantly, the award voters the feels. 

And more importantly, that feel-good story gives fans something even more important: BRAGGING RIGHTS. It’s not enough to be better at sports. You have to prove that being a fan of a certain team makes you a better person than another team that you hate.  

This sort of bragging got especially loud from certain portions of the Irish fanbase following the rise of their star linebacker Manti Te’o.  He had rejected the evil temptations of Pete Carroll and chose the path of righteousness that led him to South Bend. The linebacker overcame the heartbreaking news of the death of his grandmother and his girlfriend on the same day to perform spectacularly week after week on the field. Now, this defensive juggernaut was leading Our Lady into a new golden age and, according to sportswriters and Irish fans alike, should have been rewarded for his display of perseverance and sacrifice with the Heisman.

This image of Te’o as college football’s beacon of goodness was perpetuated by dozens of sportswriters and used by more than a few Irish fans to beat over the heads of anyone within reach. Before the game against USC, an article on Rant Sports by ND fan Tom O’Toole featured this little gem:

“In normal years, I think Te’o, whose game thrives on integrity, would be happy enough with the knowledge that he got the chance to play on a clean college team rather than a dirty one. But this season, the stakes are higher, and I don’t believe Te’o feels his higher moral ground will be completely validated if the bad boys from Troy beat his Notre Dame “family.””

Te’o’s “good guy” status became just as big a part of his image as his on the field play. Te’o wasn’t just scoring a victory for good ol’ ND with every tackle, swat, or interception. He was scoring a victory for everything good and right in sports.

Well, guess what.. Deadspin’s Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey have exposed the death of Te’o’s girlfriend, Lennay Kekua as a hoax. Kekua never met Te’o. Hell, she never EXISTED. Deadspin did what all those mainstream sportswriters could and should have done but didn’t: they fact-checked.  

The story is too convoluted and bizarre to recap here, and it’s still not certain if Te’o really fabricated all of this or if he was truly “duped” like Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick says he was. But here’s the point I’m laboriously trying to get to: no one in the mainstream media called Te’o or ND out on this hoax despite the various red flags that popped up, such as the lack of obituaries or death certificates of Kekua and no record of Kekua attending Stanford like Te’o has claimed in interviews.

Why didn’t they?  Because they couldn’t resist the urge to inject “morality” and “virtue” where they aren’t needed or don’t belong just for the sake of creating a storyline for the sports pages. Eventually, that storyline became a selling point for Te’o’s Heisman campaign, and that selling point overshadowed any of Te’o’s on-field achievements. You don’t need to go far to find a bunch of articles talking about how Manti should win the Heisman because goshdarn it, he’s such a fine young man!

Miami Herald’s Joseph Goodman:

“If Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o doesn’t win the Heisman Trophy, the Heisman Trust should just melt the award and sell it for scrap.

Te’o isn’t just the most outstanding player in the country this season, he’s the heart and soul of everything we want the sport to be, a glimmer of hope amid the scrap yard of moral and educational decay that is college football.

Notre Dame is ranked No.3 this week in the BCS and represents a shining beacon amid the swill…College football could use the public relations boost Te’o and his school provides.”

New York Daily News’ Dick Weiss

“No solely defensive player has ever won the Heisman, but this might be the year to make an exception if only to make a statement about persevering in the midst of personal tragedy and displaying a set of spiritual and moral values that appear to be disappearing in a college football world that has been rocked by major scandals at Penn State, Miami, Ohio State and North Carolina.”

And then there’s Bleacher Report’s John Rozum, who argued that Te’o should be awarded the Heisman instead of eventual winner Johnny Manziel because Te’o’s story and Manziel’s drunk run-in with the cops somehow prove that Te’o is more deserving of the award given to the best ATHLETE in college football:

“Regardless of your perspective on religion, it’s obvious that Manti Te’o is extensively more mature than Manziel. Factor in the personal obstacles that Te’o had to overcome in the midst of a perfect season and it’s impossible to fathom such difficultly.

Words cannot justifiably describe the toughness that Te’o epitomizes on and off the field. It would be easy for anyone to pack it in and let anything interpersonal affect performance. Instead, Te’o channeled his emotions and stayed true to the course.

In short, he has literally put on a heroic and inspirational performance each week. And he is the definition of the Fighting Irish.”

This mentality needs to die in a fire.  It’s all well and good if an athlete is doing something charitable or inspirational off the field, but it’s time to stop jamming it into the conversation about what they do on it. The Heisman and awards like it are meant to recognize athletic skill, not the person who has the best tear-jerking or heartwarming story. You can debate how much the award voters’ perception of Te’o was influenced by his exceptional athleticism and how much was influenced by his embellished story, but you would be a fool if you believe the latter didn’t have some sort of substantial impact. Just look at this tweet from The Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein:

Oh, really, Teddy? I hope you’re joking about this, because if the Deadspin story makes you reconsider your Heisman vote, you shouldn’t be making a vote at all. This hoax doesn’t change anything about Te’o’s stats or his talents as a linebacker. The backlash to it, on the other hand, proves that some of those award votes that made Te’o the most decorated player in college football history were not for football reasons. They voted for him because Te’o winning those awards would make the best headline: Te’o Perseveres After Death of Loved Ones To Win Heisman!

Enough of this. Here’s what needs to happen. ESPN, when you want Tom Rinaldi or Gene Wojciechowski to do some sappy emotional story for College Gameday or SportsCenter next fall, try to find some bench player or a star from a team that doesn’t get recognized often. The same goes for all you sportswriters out there. DO NOT pick the big star contending for the Heisman and the National Championship like you did with Te’o. 

If you have to write a story about those big stars, write a story about their dedication to their craft and the work they put in to become a Heisman finalist, not about any tragic circumstances surrounding them that gives their story some unique pathos.  And for crap’s sake, stop telling us how a certain outcome of a football game is “good” for the sport. We don’t need to have heroes and villains in everything. 

The mainstream media let Manti Te’o’s talents as a linebacker become the seeds for a fairy tale in which an Irish hero rode in and saved college football from the disease of immorality that infected it, and the signs that the tale was not entirely rooted in reality completely skipped them. Well, some of us don’t need college football to be “saved,” and some of us are tired of having every single part of the sport be turned into a lesson on integrity and perseverance and all that other stuff we were told about on Adventures From The Book of Virtues when we were six years old. Some of us just want to watch the damn game.

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I am a sophomore at the University of Southern California majoring in print journalism and American studies. Aside from CollegeSpun, I also write film and TV reviews for USC Annenberg's news website Neon Tommy and cover the Trojans' non-revenue sports teams on the SB Nation blog Conquest Chronicles