The writer who likens a ballplayer to Hercules or Grendel’s mother is displaying the ultimate contempt — the ballplayer no longer exists as a person or a performer, but as an object, a piece of matter to be used, in this case, for the furtherance of the sportswriter’s career by pandering to the emotional titillation of the reader/fan.
— Robert Lipsyte
Last week, when sports journalism seemed to be entering its most sobering hour with the revelation that the much-celebrated Manti Te’o story – which involved the glorious overcoming of great obstacles – was at least in part falsely manufactured, it was expected that the rehabilitation period for sports writers drunk with myth-making capabilities might last a full 28 days.
While imagining that lasting principles are to be quickly gleaned from a single event is likely naive, there seemed to be an upswelling of understanding that feature stories milking aspects of an athlete’s personal life and packaging it to nurse the most childish of intellects might not be in the best interest of sports journalists seeking a reputation for professionalism.
In an interview at Poynter, Deadspin Editor-in-Chief Tommy Craggs described the pre-Te’o-revelation pieces in a post-Te’o-revelation world like this:
Those were dumb, infantilizing stories to begin with, and they were executed poorly and sloppily, and if there’s any lesson to be drawn from this, it’s that this kind of simpering crap should be eliminated from the sports pages entirely.
Nonetheless, a week after Deadspin published its investigative report on Manti Te’o's non-existent dead girlfriend, senior ESPN writer Ivan Maisel wrote an article comparing the Notre Dame linebacker to the most idealistic character from the most idealistic movie of the most idealistic director’s oeuvre. According to Maisel, Manti Te’o is Longfellow Deeds from Frank Capra’s 1936 movie “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town.” The title of the story: Manti Te’o has got goodness.
Te’o's trust and belief in his teammates galvanized a Notre Dame team that no one expected to contend for the national championship. Head coach Brian Kelly repeatedly said Te’o is the best leader he has been around in 22 years of coaching.
By all accounts, Te’o personified humility. He acted without guile all season. When the story broke last week, Te’o continued to act without guile. He sat down with Schaap, who is no one’s pushover, and answered questions as best he could. Te’o admitted his embarrassment. He didn’t try to spin the story to save face. He owned up to his shortcomings.
Maisel forgot to add, “… while demanding ground rules for the interview that included no video cameras, limited photographs, and only two minutes of audio recording.” The ESPN writer also seems to have erased from his memory the fact that Te’o has admitted to not being as forthcoming as he should have been, tailoring his stories and catering himself to what he believed the media wanted. Te’o lied about his girlfriend. He lied about meeting face-to-face. He lied about her visiting Hawaii. He lied about how they met. No matter the motivation for telling those lies, there remains plenty of guile in there.
I understand Maisel’s motivation for shining a more flattering light on Te’o. It’s been a tough week for the young football player. The collective assumptions of sports fans have led the majority from being certain of his complicity in perpetrating a massive hoax to remaining steadfast in their unrelenting mockery of his gullibility. The Heisman runner-up has become such a popular punchline that one can be forgiven for wondering if he might have been better off telling everyone he was a manipulative fraudster rather than an easily bamboozled sap.
However, returning to the well that should have been filled in with concrete after all of the previous drawings proved to be buckets full of water poisoned by sports writers bent on creating a “godded up” college athlete is the unlikely equivalent of taking a step backward while pissing on forward progress.
Enough. Just stop “godding up” athletes, already.