Much to my chagrin, the sports journalism community proved negligent in its unassuming delivery of "the news." The reporter tacitly accepts the duty of gatekeeper, determining what is and is not appropriate to include in the public discourse. But the sports writer must be of a unique ilk. While news from the political and economic spheres is inherently relevant to the world we live in, sports news is, at its core, about men and women playing games.
A natural competitive interest arises from the tribal rituals governing fandom in modern sports. While the passion accompanying these events has permanence, rarely do the events themselves. As Reeves Wiedeman of The New Yorker explains, on-the-field narratives are boring and repetitive.
"The golden ticket of sports journalism, then, is a story in which you have to write as little as possible about the actual action on the field," Wiedeman said in an article yesterday. "More often than not, these stories are ones of some kind of triumph, of myth-building, with strong characters overcoming great odds the stuff of novels, of fiction, but not of box scores."
It was Manti Te'o's personal stories only tangentially related to the Notre Dame linebacker's striking performances that gave him access to American media's bright, if not blinding, spotlight. To focus on whether or not Te'o deliberately roused the public interest by orchestrating the now-defunct story of his dying girlfriend would miss the larger point. The most trusted news outlets in America, from The New York Times to the Associated Press, reported "the facts" of Te'o's tragic story, only to learn that their carelessness perpetuated the hoax.
Unlike traditional news coverage, such as how the stock market is performing or the success or failure of troops stationed overseas, sports are a publicly accessible respite from the duller trappings of daily life. Just as the journalism community has significant incentive to cautiously inspect the veracity of information collected by foreign correspondents and reporters on the stock exchange, they have an equally insignificant lack of motivation to fact-check the personal background stories of athletes. Freelance writer and New York Times Magazine columnist Chuck Klosterman said the situation as a simple matter of priorities.
"There was no reason not to accept it, simply because it wasn't important enough to question," Klosterman said in an article in Grantland yesterday. "It seemed like the typical inspirational anecdote that's always embedded in all hack profiles about amateur athletes."
Although there is an undeniable element of hypocrisy in my attempt to put Teo's story in perspective, it is certainly worth discussing how we arrived at this point. In my humble opinion, the most intriguing character in this story is the Notre Dame football team. The storied tradition of the Fighting Irish on the gridiron is a boon for the university and the entire city of South Bend, Ind. It should come as no surprise that Te'o and his father fed much of the primary information about the non-existent girlfriend to the South Bend Tribune, a publication that lives to cover Notre Dame. But pinning the blame for this story on any single news outlet would be overly simplistic, because without the Te'o cover story in Sports Illustrated or his interview on ESPN College Gameday, the South Bend Tribune would not have smelled blood in the water.
I first thought that something like this could never happen at Dartmouth, but I reconsidered. While we do have our own traditions that sometimes defy common sense, the frenzied obsession that characterizes Notre Dame football is a far cry from the self-validating practices we have preserved here at the College. However, whenever a community finds that there is something to gain in elevating an institution to mythic levels, you will inevitably find an individual who tries to exploit the myth for his or her own personal benefit. Just as Te'o could foresee the national media's fixation on a story about a football star's dying girlfriend, so too could Andrew Lohse envision a clear path to success if only his story could appear in Rolling Stone.