I recently read an article on Grantland.com, a site which is quickly becoming one of my favorite places to visit on the interwebs.
It wasn’t so much an article, actually. It was a fascinating email conversation between contributing editors Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman concerning the Manti Te’o story. You can read it in its entirety here.
The conversation begins with Klosterman asking what most of us ask when presented with a story of high profile people in the midst of a scandal:
What did they know and when did they know it?
Klosterman presents three scenarios:
1. He was completely fooled all season (only realizing the depth of the deception a few days before reporting it to Notre Dame authorities on December 26).
2. He was initially fooled, yet continued to perpetuate the hoax even after he realized he’d been duped (either for the benefit of public relations or to hide his own humiliation).
3. He was totally complicit the whole time.
His assumption was the same as mine, and most likely most of yours: Option 2.
But in typical Malcolm Gladwellian form, Gladwell is not much interested in what Te’o knew and when he knew it, but rather is fascinated by the narrative of the hoax:
Hold on. Hold on. I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Before we get into the question of what Manti Te’o did and didn’t know, can we go back and reflect on the singular genius of the hoax itself? The young girlfriend of a prominent football player is severely injured in a car crash and then dies of leukemia. It’s so good. It’s three of the great modern inspirational narratives, all in one.
The first element is: beautiful young girl dies of leukemia. It’s Love Story, right? The most influential Hollywood tearjerker of the past 50 years. Ali MacGraw dies tragically of leukemia, leaving Ryan O’Neal bereft: Love means never having to say you’re sorry.
Then there’s the “inspirational outsider” motif, which goes all the way back to Notre Dame, Knute Rockne, and the famous “win one for the Gipper” speech. Notre Dame’s star, George Gipp, is on his deathbed with pneumonia. He says to Rockne (at least in the movie version):
“I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Sometime, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.”
On the strength of that inspiration, Notre Dame rises up and beats previously undefeated Army 12-6…
The crucial element of this kind of story is that the off-the-field tragedy does not diminish the importance of the game (as you would expect, logically, that it might). It makes the athlete take his task even more seriously…When Pittsburgh Pirates manager Chuck Tanner’s mother died just before Game 5 of the 1979 World Series, Tanner, famously, goes ahead and manages the game because his mother would have wanted him to keep working. That’s why it’s so crucial, for narrative purposes, that Te’o didn’t go to his girlfriend’s funeral — even though, you know, a man might reasonably be expected to want to go to his girlfriend’s funeral. She told him, he said, that she didn’t want him to miss a game.
Then comes the third part — the Icarus myth. Our hero flies too close to the sun. This is the story of the star who dies tragically in a car or plane crash. The examples here are almost too numerous to mention: Steve Prefontaine, Thurman Munson, Roberto Clemente, Jerome Brown, Ayrton Senna, Derrick Thomas — not to mention the granddaddy of them all, James Dean. Too fast to live, too young to die.
Typically, these are entirely separate narratives. In a way that might not be appreciated today, Love Story is very much about leukemia. That was the culturally resonant disease of that era. It struck healthy, innocent young people, entirely at random. The death rate was close to 100 percent. The Icarus narrative is completely different. It’s not about innocence. It’s about the heroic self-destructiveness of youth. James Dean was a rebel without a cause. Jerome Brown was a man-child. The whole point of Pre’s genius is that he pushed himself to the absolute limit…
So what is so fantastic about the Manti Te’o story? It is all three narratives, all in one. It’s Love Story meets Icarus meets inspirational outsider. It wasn’t enough that Manti’s love affair be doomed, that his girlfriend had leukemia, and that he drew from her death the inspiration to go out and get 12 tackles in the crucial defeat of Michigan State. She also had to be severely injured in a car accident. It’s a combo platter! It’s so over-the-top I am in awe. You couldn’t be more right that this is an “aggressively modern” scandal. Why would anyone in the 21st century settle for just one played-out story line?
I’ve posted just a small snippet of a rather long but riveting article. If you have a few minutes, it’s definitely worth a read.
I suppose what I find surprising about the Manti Te’o story was the realization that I wasn’t all too surprised by it. The rose colored glasses which once adorned my eyes have long since been replaced by a skepticism of all storybook, “against all odds” back stories. Because Gladwell is exactly right. We’ve come to expect the myth. Being ranked as the fourth best college football player in the nation and being virtually guaranteed as a top NFL draft choice isn’t compelling enough. Losing your beloved grandmother on the day of the big game? Compelling. Losing your girlfriend to leukemia within hours of your grandmother on the day of the big game? Epic–you can’t make this stuff up…
Oops. Apparently you can.
Does the debunking of the Manti Te’o myth bother me? Sort of.
But not because I feel duped by Te’o or because I feel sorry for him for allowing himself to be duped.
What bugs me is that no one bothered to fact check his story. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, the first core principle of journalism is its obligation is to the truth. “Its essence is a discipline of verification” comes in at number three.
A five minute search on Google would have contradicted most of Te’o's story. But instead, the myth plays out over and over again on glossy magazine covers and heart-wrenching, Lifetime-movie-of-the-week-worthy televised stories, all the while, not one journalist daring to question the validity of what in hindsight is a mostly implausible story.
Shame on them for breaking the cardinal rule of journalism.
And shame on us. Not for buying into a false narrative, but our need for any narrative other than the one which pertains to the God-given talent, training, hard work and personal sacrifice it takes to be an athlete the caliber of Manti Te’o. Shouldn’t that be enough to garner our attention and our respect?
More shameful still is the fact that we only become truly riveted by the narrative when it turns out to be a lie.