Sports journalists should start checking their facts before passing on puerile life stories
I would like to propose the following rule for journalists: When presented with a feel-good story on a sports-related subject, you should presume the story is fabricated, unless persuaded by clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.
This is just one of the many lessons to be extracted from the increasingly bizarre story of Manti Te’o, the star football player whose heart-rending narrative about the simultaneous death of his grandmother and his girlfriend turned out to have been invented out of whole cyber-cloth.
(Another lesson is that administrators at Notre Dame are far more likely to weep over the imaginary death of a nonexistent girl than they are to shed tears for a real girl who actually committed suicide, after allegedly being sexually assaulted by one of Teo’s teammates.)
Rather than follow such a rule, powerful and research-rich media outlets such as Sports Illustrated, NBC and ESPN swallowed the fantasy of the dying girlfriend whole, without bothering to do the cursory fact-checking (a couple of hours on Google and Lexis would have sufficed) that would have destroyed this, in retrospect, all too obviously pat tale.
The Te’o saga is just the weirdest version of a story that gets played out again and again, because of our culture’s puerile obsession with athletes as role models. Here’s another straightforward rule: That people are very good at winning football games, or bicycle races, or golf tournaments, doesn’t tell you anything about those people, other than that they’re good at those activities.