Football

Mythmakers

Ross Lucksinger gives his obligatory

Manti Te’o column on the nature of myth in college football and the confirmation bias that led to the collective suckering of sports media.
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Te’o opinion to proceed.

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*sigh*

Ok. Fine. Let’s do this.

Back in August, when I selected Frank

Herbert’s Dune (1965) for my Book of the Month feature, I

quoted Herbert, who wrote shortly before his death: “Dune

was aimed at this whole idea of the infallible leader because my view

of history says that mistakes made by a leader (or made in a leader’s

name) are amplified by the numbers who follow without question.”

The novelist and journalist had

recognized a growing trend in the U.S. of myth-making out of

contemporary figures. Perhaps this is, as Neil Gaiman has explored, due to the relatively young age of

American civilization and our decided lack of ancient myths. Perhaps

it’s simply a product of technology and the way information is

consumed.

Whatever the collective psychological

basis, the need for creation and consumption of these modern myths moves billions

in college football, which sells the work of unpaid amateurs to

maintain the purity of a wholly for-profit venture.

It’s why the entire college football

world was suckered into a hoax, and not even a good one.

Seriously. It was a Twitter profile.

There wasn’t even an obituary for Lennay Kekua. Or anything in

Stanford’s database. Anything! I had a friend at UT in the Longhorn

Band who created a fake student so he could get an extra meal on away

game trips. That “scheme” was of greater complexity than this. The lie should not have lasted just

from a pure logistical basis. But it did. It did because from a narrative

standpoint it was gold.

Confirmation bias demanded that it be

true. Notre Dame needed a champion to return the Irish to glory. A

hero was needed to slay the dragon of Alabama. A good guy was needed

for a soft focus ESPN piece with dramatic B-roll of someone sitting

alone in a stadium while Tom Rinaldi speaks…with grave

inflection…and dramatic pauses…like this.

What Te’o knew and when he knew it is

not yet known. It still needs to be sorted out whether he was caught

in a hoax and then let media run with it or if he was pushing for

hype or if he was embarrassed after being caught in a hoax and then

pushed the story or if he was complicit in the lie the entire time.

Either he is a vastly more complex individual than we suspected or,

according to Te’o and Notre Dame, a vastly more simple. But the failure

of modern sports media is known, and it is total.

Not that this will change anything. It

didn’t change after Paterno and it won’t change now. ESPN will come

out of this fine. The story will be twisted to focus on the lies and not on those who allowed

it. Te’o will talk about it in an ESPN exclusive, cry, and get a book

deal (by the way, Manti, I will totally ghost-write that if you

want). No blame for the enablers, simply, “Look how you’ve wronged

us,” “we have always been at war with East Asia,” etc.

ESPN will be fine. Sports

Illustrated and others who market themselves as competent

investigative organizations, not so much. This was one of the factors that prompted Pete Thamel to

release every single word Te’o said to him about his fake dead

girlfriend in attempt to piece together what happened.

Contrition is valuable, certainly, but

reflection is more important. That’s what prevents lies from

spiraling into a fiction borne of nothing but our own desire for a

good story.

As a journalist, I know it’s caused me

to reflect. For most of Wednesday afternoon I sat staring blankly at

my computer screen and questioning everything anyone ever told me in

an interview. Is there anything I accepted blindly I should have

looked into? Are there any lies I’ve sold?

I hope it causes everyone in the

industry to reflect so that something on this scale of terrible gets

cut off by a beat reporter who knows how to use LexisNexis before it

turns into a national-level scam. Because nothing good has come from

this.

Well…not nothing. At least someone

didn’t, in fact, die of leukemia.

I call that a win.