The Manti Te'o Dead-Girlfriend Hoax: Blame the Media

But also: WTF?

manti teo apimages roundtable 615.jpg
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation,Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic) react to the news that Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te'o's much-publicized girlfriend... never existed.


A very quick review of the facts. Manti Te'o is a senior linebacker for Notre Dame who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting and was generally held up as a role model for college athletes. Part of the support came from his wrenching story of tragedy: Te'o's grandmother and girlfriend died in a span of 24 hours in September, but he fought through adversity to have an amazing season. So said Sports Illustrated in a cover story, ESPN in multiple articles, and virtually every major sports news organization in the country at least once.

Well, according to the sports blog Deadspin, Te'o never lost his girlfriend. Because she didn't exist. The story is evolving as we speak, but as of this writing, Notre Dame is saying that Te'o was the victim of a hoax, that he carried on a long relationship with a figment of some psychopath's imagination. I urge everyone to read the Deadspin story on this, and this really should make us all consider—OK ENOUGH, WTF WTF WTF.

Is that a scary turn of events for the Fourth Estate? Oh yes.

I mean seriously, what?!?!?!?!? This isn't 1913, it's 2013. How exactly does every major sports media organization in the United States re-package a story that turns out to be wholly false? Budgets are stretched, but do major magazines not even fact-check their cover stories? Were all the top sportswriters in the country so enamored with this tale of woe that they didn't think to, you know, do their jobs? Mr. Te'o will get his soon enough—at best, he exploited a situation he didn't really understand to enhance his fame and prestige, and at worst he perpetrated a fraud on the entire country. But this story about the (now proved fictitious) Lennay Kekua has been in the news cycle for months. SI may be the worst offender, because running a heartwarming cover article based in part on a lie is the nightmare bizarro equivalent of Sidd Finch, only this was real. But it's appallingly apparent that every member of the sports media who wrote about this basically copied and pasted from previous articles.

Did they not feel compelled to check out this so-called girlfriend because the story had become "commonly accepted knowledge" to the media? Probably. Is that a scary turn of events for the Fourth Estate? Oh yes. Will this affect Te'o's draft prospects? He might slide a few spots, but he can play the GAME OF FOOTBALL, so he'll still be taken in the first 15 picks come April unless Deadspin or somebody else can prove he knew it was hoax the whole time.

I honestly don't know what else to say. Hampton, help me out. What's your reaction?

–Jake


Well, Jake. My first reaction was dumbfounded silence. That was followed by long bouts of sputtering outrage, mixed with slack-jawed, shoulder-shrugging in disbelief. I'm still in that phase, in fact.

Incredible, isn't it? Not one of the highly-paid, well-respected journalists at SI or ESPN even bothered to check the most basic facts of their stories. Charlie Rose and CBS, with all that staff, with all that preaching about "original reporting," yet nobody at the whole network even so much as bothered to pick up a phone to find out if the girl actually existed.

Presented by

Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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