Last week I spent 20-plus hours over the course of three days driving from my home in Minnesota to a USHL Top Prospects Game which featured many players that will be drafted in the 2013 NHL Draft in June. It was held in Muskegon, Mich., which is located near Lake Michigan across from Milwaukee. In fact, in the summer time you can drive to Milwaukee and take a ferry across the lake to Muskegon.
Anyhow, with more than 20 hours of driving time, I had plenty of time to think. Of course I didn’t spend the entire time thinking about the recent Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o news, but as an avid sports fan it occupied a lot of the space in my brain (which is limited to begin with).
I’m going to start with my take on both items, in the interest of full disclosure, and then get down to the nitty-gritty of how this affects journalism going forward.
To be honest, I’m not surprised Armstrong doped. It seems like all professional riders do and most people will justify it because
“Well, everyone does it,” and “He raised money for cancer”—the former observation being kind of a childish, playground mentality and the latter having some legitimacy.
The problem with Armstrong, however, is that he bullied those around him that threatened to out him. You can say, “Well, if they just legitimized doping, then he wouldn’t have to cover it up,” but two problems arise:
First, it’s not really a “human” feat, which is ultimately what makes it spectacular. As soon as you start allowing athletes to dope or use performance-enhancing drugs, it’s as though they become supermen rather than sportsmen, as Jeremy Rozansky elaborated on in The New Atlantis.
Secondly, that doesn’t really get to the real problem. The problem is that Armstrong, seen as a hero to outsiders, uses intimidation to get his way behind the scenes. Even if doping were allowed in cycling, a problem would arise if a teammate—conscious about their health or perhaps for moral reasons—chose not to dope. Don’t you think Armstrong would “persuade” his teammate to do so through intimidation? The evidence suggests he would.
Compared to Armstrong’s fiasco, the Te’o story is pretty harmless.
For the most part, he seems like a good kid that was placed on a pedestal because a) he’s a great football player, b) he plays for Notre Dame and c) he does everything right: stayed in college four years, isn’t going to get into a bar fight like Jimmy Clausen or a string of DUIs like Michael Floyd.
He’s also a very religious person at an extremely religious school.
And, let’s be honest, as a person that has about as much game as Cliff Clavin and is certainly not a serial dater by any means, I’ve made up my fair share of girlfriends. I mean c’mon, what are you supposed to do when you’re in college and living with seven other guys that, considering how nerdy/awkward/insane we are were, somehow ended up courting attractive women? I had to make something up.
Eventually I began hanging out with real women, which is way better than fake women (trust me), and it was about that time that I gave up on the Soul Mate Theory.
The Soul Mate Theory, introduced to me by the great Professor Fred Parella in a class on the theology of marriage, posits that some people believe that they will saunter through life as a single person and happen upon another person, typically of the opposite sex, that is their soul mate. Upon meeting this person, they form an instant bond, get married, and live happily ever after.
It is a Notre Dame Disney make-believe story that has no basis in reality.
Trust me, it’s much nicer meeting someone you find attractive and take the “Do you want a drink?” approach rather than starting with “Will you be true to me forever and bear my children?”
I think Te’o had a little bit of the Soul Mate Theory going and that is why he was able to get entangled in the hoax. Why else would a good-looking (let’s be honest) Notre Dame linebacker choose to have a Twitter girlfriend that won’t Skype or Facetime him over dating a college coed? Why else would he share scripture passages—and, most likely, personal information—with somebody he never knew?
Honestly, he has nothing to gain and a lot to lose by choosing to enter a social media relationship when beautiful women surround him. Furthermore, sharing personal information always backfires, especially when a prankster like Ronaiah Tuiasosopo is on the receiving end of the communication.
Tuiasosopo had a previous relationship with Te’o and likely knew, or at least had an educated guess, of what the linebacker was looking for in a relationship. By creating the Lennay Kekua avatar, if you will, he reeled Te’o in and my guess is that by the time he became suspicious, it was too late.
He had already gone to the South Bend Tribune and told them that the two had met. More pertinently, he had already told his parents about their encounter and in Samoan culture, dishonoring your family is a big no-no.
Like any great lie, it continued to spiral out of control: It showed up in a Sports Illustrated profile, all over television and became the prominent storyline in the National Championship game.
I have no doubt that Te’o and other ND insiders knew about it before the matchup with Alabama. I’m also sure that, in retrospect many people felt “The truth would set him free!” but that’s absolutely selfish and absurd. I know the Golden Domers wanted more out of Te’o in that game—trust me, I was there—but can you imagine how ugly that would have been if American had known about the hoax on gameday? Not only would it have become the main storyline of the game, but all AJ McCarron would have had to do to rattle Te’o was pull him aside right before kickoff and say, “See that really hot supermodel up there in the stands? Yeah, that’s my girlfriend and she’s pretty damn real.”
Trust me, Te’o would have probably soiled his pants (we know Brent Musburger did).
In the end, as much as I’ve enjoyed Jon Stewart cracking a Te’o joke to start each of his shows this week, I feel compassion for the man. I have every reason to believe that Te’o is a good person and an outstanding football player. Hell, I’d love to have the Vikings draft him this year. We could use a linebacker and Christian Ponder could offer Te’o some dating tips.
In case you haven’t heard, he’s doing pretty well for himself.
How this affects journalism
One day I’d like to stop being a leach on society and get a job as a journalist—you know, get paid to offer my wonderful readers the truth about different topics in sports rather than pontificating from my parents’ basement—so naturally I take a lot of interest in this angle.
For starters, these two stories could not have been reported any more differently.
Sure, in Lance Armstrong’s case there were legions of defenders that felt that he was innocent up until the day that he sat down with Oprah. At the same time, there were also many reporters hounding him and his people, hoping to be the person that broke the doping story. Even some of his most loyal supporters, like Rick Reilly for instance, relentlessly probed him on the doping issue:
’Wrote it, said it, tweeted it: “He’s clean.” Put it in columns, said it on radio, said it on TV. Staked my reputation on it, wrote Reilly in a recent article.
Why? Because Armstrong always told me he was clean.
On the record. Off the record. Every kind of record. In Colorado. In Texas. In France. On team buses. In cars. On cell phones.
You can say that Reilly’s most recent column on Armstrong, which I quoted above, is just another “Pay attention to me” piece (trust me, Reilly does this from time to time), but in this case it’s more than that. There are many writers that feel the same way Reilly does. There are also many supporters that do as well. Just like when Marion Jones admitted steroid use in 2007, there are many people that feel duped and aren’t taking it well. The difference here is that there was no tear-filled press conference or any sign of remorse from Armstrong whatsoever. The Texan went on Oprah, told her he cheated, and wants to get back on the bike. At this point, there are many that would rather point out how foolish his cameo in Dodgeball looks rather than see him participate in another race.
Regardless of how you feel about Armstrong, here’s the point: There are people that sought an audience with the biker with the sole purpose of revealing to the world that he was doping. It is not as though everyone wanted to write a fluff piece about him.
On the other hand, the guys at Deadspin were the minority with Te’o. They didn’t want to interview him and share with the world how magical his story was—that’s not really their cup of tea. Rather they grew a little suspicious about the story he was telling and wanted to know if there really was a Lennay Kekua.
The reason why there is so much outrage over Pete Thamel’s SI story, which ran in an issue with Te’o prominently placed on the cover, as opposed say, the South Bend Tribune writing about Te’o meeting Kekua, is that anybody capable of critical thinking understands that Notre Dame football is what sells the Tribune (or, really, gets hits on their site) and they are very likely to be gullible with a story like this.
Conversely, the expectation with SI is that they are always going to question the validity of something that appears a little fishy. It’s kind of along the lines of, if you’re publication is going to look into something like the Ohio State tattoo economy or, more controversially, UCLA basketball “losing its way”, you’ve also got to be critical of Notre Dame*.
*It should be noted that George Dohrmann, a Notre Dame graduate, investigated the Ohio State with David Epstein and wrote the UCLA piece. Pete Thamel, who wrote the Te’o story, went to Syracuse.
The problem that people have with Thamel goes back an earlier story he and colleague Thayer Evans wrote about former LSU football player Tyrann Mathieu. You know, the Honey Badger. The Sparknotes version of the story would be this: Mathieu smoked weed, got caught multiple times, was kicked off the team and will enter this year’s draft without having played his junior season.
My immediate reaction, as a graduate of Santa Clara University in pot-crazed California, was, “Really? People are surprised college students smoke weed?” I mean, word on the street was that a player on our basketball team smoked weed before most games and I never once thought, “Damn! That’s a can’t-miss story. People are going to be really surprised that a California-born player plays basketball while he is high. I’ve got to look into this.” It was just kind of accepted that this guy took a rip as part of his pre-game ritual.
Now, don’t get me wrong, marijuana is illegal* and you’d think that an athlete could hold off during the season, especially if they knew that getting caught could jeopardize their status on the team.
*At least at the federal level, even though if you’ve ever spent any time in California, you’ll realize that its use is pretty widespread. Same goes for Washington, Oregon, Colorado…and just about any state out west.
But it’s not really that that bothers most people. It’s that when Thamel was doing his reporting for the Honey Badger story, he went a great distance to frame Mathieu as a dissident. When writing the Te’o piece, on the other hand, Thamel briefly mentions the alleged rape of a coed by a former player and the scissor lift accident only to suggest that Notre Dame has redeemed itself in their undefeated season with Te’o leading the charge.
“This was journalism as fill-in-the-blank exercise,” wrote Slate’s Josh Levin after the Deadspin story was released, “the creation of a simple story that tells you what you already know.” Ironically, it was Dohrmann, Thamel’s colleague at SI, who stressed the importance of having a “Hollywood plot” and an “indie plot” in the class I took with him. In essence, you’ve got to have a theme to grab a large audience of people, but also a subplot that humanizes the story.
This seems complicated, but comes naturally to anyone that spends a decent amount of time profiling people. A year before I took the Dohrmann class, I wrote an opus on Jason Demers, a defensemen for the San Jose Sharks. The Hollywood plot: “It’s an underdog story!” The indie plot: “This is an examination of the value a player puts on wearing an NHL uniform.”
The same thing happened when I did Minnesota Twins pitcher Scott Diamond. Hollywood plot: “Another underdog story!” Indie plot: “Diamond is almost more of an engineer that plays baseball rather than a baseball player that graduated with a degree in engineering.”
Or, if you want to get away from the underdog story, I wrote a profile on Johnny Maccione a couple years after the Cubs fan tossed a beer on Shane Victorino of the Philadelphia Phillies. Hollywood plot: “Whatever happened to the guy who tossed an Old Style on Victorino?” Indie plot: “C’mon, don’t judge. Any passionate fan that has had a couple is capable of doing that.”
This is what happens when you write a balanced story: You realize nothing is black and white. The reason why Rudy is so heartwarming is because it’s a Hollywood film. In real life, this guy settled on a lawsuit when he was charged of swindling people with his energy drink company. That kind of puts a damper on the whole underdog thing, doesn’t it?
The problem with those two Thamel stories is that they only really have a Hollywood plot. For Mathieu it is, “This little pot head got kicked off the football team” and for Te’o it is “Here’s the next ‘Win one for the Gipper’ story.”
Yeah, Thamel pushed Mathieu’s complicated relationship with his father as an indie plot, but, really, how does a person with a turbulent father-son relationship that smokes marijuana get a cover? Trust me, it’s not because that is unique to Mathieu: Most guys that are fortunate enough to grow up with a father leave college with a couple kinks in that relationship and a lot of people smoke weed. The reason why the Honey Badger got the cover is that he was such a popular and polarizing figure, so he’ll sell magazines, and you can’t run the cover without the story.
It’s kind of like that Fletch dynamic where Chevy Chase’s editor wants him to finish up his investigation on the drug trade on the beaches of LA because the paper is planning to run an advertisement about cleaning up the drug scene. Sadly, even Irwin W. Fletcher knows not to run a story until it is completed.
Which brings me to my second point: I’m actually going to defend Thamel in the sense that you can kind of forgive him for not wanting to probe into the girlfriend situation and, even if he did find out, he would have been put into an awful difficult situation.
Here’s how I figure:
Earlier this year, ESPN The Magazine wrote an outstanding feature on Joe Mauer. It captured who he was as a person and focused on how he was going to overcome an injury-riddled, disappointing 2011 campaign. The writer, Tim Keown, is as pure a writer as ESPN has. He has no Twitter handle, little social media presence and is not featured on the company’s television programs.
In the piece, Keown writes that Mauer’s then-fiancée, Maddie Bisanz, requested not to be interviewed. I didn’t think twice about it.
I knew she was real because her brother was a couple years ahead of me in high school and she was Mauer’s high school sweetheart at Cretin-Derham Hall, but even if I wasn’t privy to that information, there was no reason to believe she wasn’t real. Keown provided a wedding date, a quote from Mauer about how “She’s not into any of that” and that they were classmates at Cretin.
To be honest, on the first read I didn’t question why Thamel didn’t dig into the girlfriend angle more: The national media had broken the Kekua death story long before the feature came out and I know that it is protocol to respect the privacy of an interview subject’s loved ones.
Even non-athletes often seek to keep their significant others out of the media. Both SI’s Chris Ballard and Jonathan Mahler of The New York Times have written lengthy profiles on Bill Simmons, who is notoriously difficult to reach and does not allow writers to visit his house or speak to his wife even though he mentions her in his columns. Again, do you really blame Simmons? If his wife doesn’t want to be interviewed, so be it.
Read the transcript Thamel provides on SI.com* and you will realize that he is extremely thorough in his interview: He cut Te’o off to the timetable right, asked how he met her and when she graduated from Stanford. Where Thamel gets the most criticism, however, is where he goes “This is unbelievable” following the part where Te’o describes, among other things, speaking to on the phone before she passed away.
*By the way, there’s a problem with releasing the transcript. I understand why he did it, it is a completely legitimate thing to do and it probably was a good move considering how much criticism he was under; however, there is stuff in there that he probably wouldn’t put in the story and while it’s on the record, the speaker probably didn’t want getting out. For example, from his interview with Fr. Paul Doyle, the Dillon Hall rector: “I was surprised to hear about it on the news. No one had called me, and I’m the team chaplain for God’s sakes. It was a surprise to me. You don’t have to put that in the article.” Not a huge deal that that got out, but I’m sure Fr. Doyle would prefer that had stayed between him and the writer in case the quote were to be misinterpreted, especially outside of the context of an article.
Let’s just pretend that, at that moment, Thamel goes “Yeah, this has to be made up.” He does some research and does not find her in Stanford’s databases, doesn’t find her on LexisNexis and can’t find an obituary on her so he dials up his editor at SI and says, “Hey, I don’t think Lennay Kekua exists.”
I know SI prides itself on good journalism. I know they’re not stupid and realize that if they print a piece in which the girlfriend is a significant figure and the whole thing is a hoax, they’ll look extremely foolish. I know they trust their writers. Still, there’s no way that the first words out of his editor’s mouth aren’t: “You better be damn sure his girlfriend isn’t real, Pete.”
SI can say what they want: They know they are releasing that cover at the apex of Notre Dame’s popularity. They are a struggling publication that has CNN will be dumping in favor of my guys over at Bleacher Report .
They. Need. To. Sell. Magazines.
Plain and simple.
In order to break this story, Thamel is going to need time. He can’t get this wrong. Remember, Thamel’s story was released Oct. 1, 2012. Deadspin’s story came out on Jan. 16, 2013. Yeah, SI might be able to do their research a little quicker than Deadspin, although remember Dohrmann is a Notre Dame alum and even if he has no bias towards or against the school (he claims he doesn’t), most people aren’t going to take that at face value, so it might be harder to put him on the case.
But that’s not the point.
The point is that Thamel knows that if he gets this wrong, that if Kekua really does exist, he’s toast. No, SI won’t fire him on the spot, but if they go through another set of layoffs and push comes to shove, c’mon, who’s going to go? I mean this guy just kept one of your most popular issues from publishing because he thought Te’o was making up that he had a girlfriend. Please.
This is why I defend Thamel. He says that he did some background research and made some adjustments to the story (i.e. he didn’t say she was a Stanford student) and at the time it went to be published, I’m sure he was certain that Kekua existed.
In the end, though, he was wrong.
The rush to publish is only becoming more urgent, wrote Tim Layden in a thoughtful piece about how this will affect sportswriting going forward, hence the time to confirm is ever shorter. It’s easy to sanctimoniously suggest that every fact in every story in every publication and on every website should be locked down tight, but in reality that’s impossible. Most details of the variety described above are relatively harmless, but Te’o's story seemed harmless, as well, until it proved untrue.
But here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter if news is published in print or online. All it matters is that you get the story right and people read it. And a major part of getting the story right is humanizing your subjects, not making them into superheroes.
That’s the ultimate lesson here.
Tom Schreier writes for TheFanManifesto. He can followed on Twitter at @tschreier3. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.