Culbreath: Imaginary heroesWritten by Matt 'Shaggy' Culbreath | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Who would have guessed that the person who would knock Lance Armstrong off the front page was someone who didn’t actually exist?
Early this week, Tour de Lance sat down with Oprah Winfrey and admitted to using performance enhancing drugs. He was shamed and stripped of his titles after being exposed as the ringleader of an elite blood doping program. The thing is, I don’t know if anybody actually cared by the time the interview ran, because it was Wednesday afternoon when a truly unbelievable story broke out of South Bend, Ind.: Notre Dame senior linebacker and Heisman Trophy candidate Manti Te’o was either the victim or perpetrator of a hoax involving a girlfriend who never existed. This “girlfriend,” Lennay Kekua, passed away from leukemia around the same time that his grandmother had died, and became part of the inspiration for Te’o to play at the level that helped lead Notre Dame to the BCS Championship Game.
The story surrounding Te’o is still developing — Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick held a press conference on Wednesday night to say that Te’o had been a victim of an Internet hoax. Deadspin, the sports blog that originally reported the story, has a source that says they’re “80 percent sure” Te’o was in on the prank for the sake of publicity. Much like the Armstrong story, it could be months before the full story comes out. And as the sports media covers these stories as they unfold, they must know deep down that they’re partially complicit.
After Armstrong sat down with America’s Softest Softball Pitcher to confess his sins, many national sportswriters took to their medium to perform mea culpas. They admitted that the story of Armstrong beating cancer to become the most dominant biker in the world was just too good, and it was easy to dismiss those who tried to expose him as haters. In their defense, it wasn’t as if there was evidence just laying about: It took the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency years to build a case against Armstrong. A sports blog wasn’t going to break the steel curtain of silence that surrounded Armstrong. Honestly, had Lance not given up the fight, I believe most of the country would still be on his side. Lord knows I would have been.
Breaking open the story of Kekua, however, would have been bafflingly simple. Deadspin’s investigation into Te’o’s imaginary gal began with looking for an obituary or death certificate. There was none. Nor was there a record of her with the Social Security Administration. She allegedly attended Stanford, but there were no records of her there either. Pull on any one of those loose strings, and the story falls apart. But who hears the story of a man who lost his grandmother and his girlfriend in the same day and feels the need to investigate? That’s not a scandal, that’s a tragedy! You leave the man be, and when he uses that tragedy to inspire himself on the field, that’s a story that writes itself.
(For the record, ESPN reporter Gene Wojciechowski had discovered the missing obituary while doing research for a piece he was producing on Te’o, but backed off on Te’o’s request.)
The sports media loves these types of stories, because it gives the activities we cover some real-world meaning. While our friends on the news and editorial side of the building are reporting on events that have real consequences, we sports folks have box scores. We understand that 80 percent of the players we cover are “inspired” by the paycheck they cash for playing a children’s game. So when a player has an honest-to-goodness story behind his success, we pounce on it. We hold it up as an example as to why sport is important. Names like Rudy Ruettiger and Michael Oher personify the triumph of the human spirit, not because they play football, but because of the obstacles they had to overcome to achieve their dreams.
We desperately want sports to be the microcosm of life: a place where hard work and dedication pay off in the end. Where a man can not only beat testicular cancer, but bounce back faster and stronger than ever. Where the loss of a loved one motivates you to reach down deep and find the strength to succeed.
Are these stories diminished because they’re built on lies? Possibly not; the entrenched Armstrong apologists will point to the money his Livestrong Foundation has raised for cancer research as proof that Armstrong isn’t a villain.
It’s a compelling argument.
If the sports media (myself included) wants to attach real-world meaning to the stories that we find in sports, however, then we need to use the same level of scrutiny on our reporting that the news and editorial side of the building use on their reporting. We love our puff pieces — just watch any Olympic broadcast. We just have to make sure that a story which has the potential to propel an athlete into the public consciousness isn’t built on a shaky foundation. We’ve torn down so many idols in recent memory, and it’s simply because the sports media has failed to do its due diligence.
Matt “Shaggy” Culbreath is sports director at 1370 WSPD. Email him at email@example.com.