Sometimes, people harmlessly lie to the press. Then the truth comes out. Then we all forget about it.
Though it's now forgotten, in the fall of 1941 the biggest story in sports was the sensational football team of Plainfield Teachers College in central New Jersey. The Comets were lead by a multitalented Hawaiian sophomore halfback, Johnny "The Celestial Comet" Chung. As in the old football song, "Mr. Touchdown," Johnny Chung could run and kick and throw, his talents miraculously fueled by the rice he ate between quarters. Rice did for Chung what spinach did for Popeye.
He was a PR man's dream—literally. He was invented by Morris Newburger, a New York stock broker, and Alex Dannenbaum, a radio announcer who phoned New York and Philadelphia papers with thrilling accounts of the Comets' victories and Chung's amazing touchdowns. Numerous newspapers, including the New York Times, started picking up the scores and running stories. Six weeks into an undefeated season, a reporter named Red Smith left the newsroom at his paper, The Philadelphia Record, to drive up to Plainfield, find the college and interview Chung. Smith quickly discovered that not only the team but even the college was imaginary.
The hoax was all in good humor. After Smith traced the press releases back to Newburger and Dannenbaum, they confessed and wrote their last story: PTC had cancelled its remaining games when Chung and several other players flunked their exams and were declared ineligible.
Seventy-one years later, the tale of Johnny Chung seems weirdly familiar in light of the newly exposed hoax about Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's supposed girlfriend. According to Deadspin, a 22-year old former high school player and friend of Te'o, Ronaiah Tulasosopo, borrowed pictures from a woman he knew, passed her off as Te'o's doomed girlfriend Lennay Kekua, and, via Twitter and Facebook, created a tragic love story for the Notre Dame star that first the University, then the South Bend Tribune, then Sports Illustrated, and then the mainstream press bought into.
What was the degree of Te'o's involvement? Whether he helped dream up the Kekua's existence or not, he knowingly perpetrated it, telling reporters how they met (at a 2009 Stanford-Notre Dame football game), that she was a student at Stanford, and, finally, of her death from leukemia, all of which have turned out to be fictitious. It is one thing to believe that Te'o could have met and fallen in love with a girl he only met and knew online; it is quite another to believe that he could have gone three years without making physical contact with the woman he loved—especially after he claimed to have met her at a football game. It's even harder to believe knowing that Te'o's father claims she flew to Hawaii several times to visit the family.
The entire story is like a puzzle that, as new pieces are added, begins to form a picture so preposterous that Johnny Chung's creators would have blushed. How, many are asking, could such a tale be believed in the first place? The obvious reason, of course, is that sportswriters did not put all the pieces together. They never even tried.
But what does Te'o/Kekua mean? What does it say about our values and journalistic integrity?
Nothing, nothing, and nothing. The whole silly concoction is one that will be only dimly remembered in years to come, possibly relegated to a TV movie and a category on Jeopardy.
Will (as I'm hearing asked every 15 minutes on ESPN) the incident affect Te'o's status in the upcoming NFL draft? Are they kidding? Of course it will. If you're an NFL team official and you're about to spend millions of dollars on a first-year player, would you want to take chance on the seeming head case who perpetrated the myth of a dead girlfriend who never existed? Well, the New York Jets might take a chance—they'll try anybody. But not many other teams will, I'll wager.
The other meme surrounding the Te'o/Kekua story is about what is now being called "cut and paste" journalism, the process by which misinformation, often originating on Facebook and Twitter, is picked up reputable sources and thus validated as fact.
The hoax has inspired a legion of finger pointers (including here at The Atlantic) who seem to imply that even though Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and, yes, even the New York Times were fooled, they never would have been. I think they're wrong. The story is exactly the kind of thing that takes off because it really isn't worth anyone's time to fact check. You have a much-awarded football player attending a prestigious university whose integrity has never seriously been questioned and he tells everyone that his girlfriend died.Who is going to question it?
There is no victim, no known crime, and apparently no scheme for making a buck on the lie. So why should anyone have been skeptical? The obvious gains are that the dead-girlfriend story created much sympathy for Te'o in the press, increasing his name recognition and popularity, giving Notre Dame's football program a boost, and helping his chances to win the Heisman Trophy (he finished second). But how could they have been thinking of the Heisman back in 2009 when Te'o supposedly met Kekua at the Stanford game?
Buying Te'o's unquestioningly story isn't like missing a politician's deception about weapons of mass destruction; it isn't even like believing all those years that Lance Armstrong didn't use performance-enhancing drugs. It's most like Plainfield Teachers college and Johnny Chung, and that's the way it will be remembered in 70 years: barely at all.
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