By Adrienne Roberts, Editorial Page Editor
Published January 17, 2013
I used to worship the Detroit Pistons. I’d watch every game, read the sports section of The Detroit Free Press while eating my cereal every morning, and visit the players’ websites much too frequently. But then on Nov. 19, 2004, I watched the infamous Pistons-Pacers brawl where Ron Artest, a player from the Pacers, went into the stands and started punching a fan.
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I think it was at that moment that I realized these players weren’t necessarily heroes, or at the very least they weren’t people I should see as role models. Some have overcome incredible circumstances to make it to where they are today, but others haven’t. They can be complacent, angry and rude just like anyone else. The only difference is that they get paid millions upon millions per year.
So when the story broke Wednesday that Manti Te'o, a linebacker from University of Notre Dame, was a pawn in an elaborate Internet hoax, many people seemed to take the story at face value. They were surprised that he was trusting enough to believe he had a girlfriend he had never seen in person, but few were skeptical, which is concerning considering how much he profited from this “heartwarming” story. From Te'o to Lance Armstrong, stories of athletes lying about their past for professional gain seem to be appear on a weekly basis.
According to Sports Illustrated, Te’o learned of the death of his grandmother and his girlfriend within the span of six hours in September. He went on to help his team beat Michigan State, finishing the game with 12 tackles. Numerous stories with the “triumph under extreme situations” storyline were written about him. That’s not surprising, but the fact is that his relationship consisted of tweets, text messages and phone calls. It’s astonishing that not one reporter looked into this before they wrote the original stories about the romance and heartbreak.
The details remain unclear at this point. Why did Notre Dame know about this on Dec. 26 and not say anything? Were they really trying to preserve their legacy for just a few more weeks? How much did Te’o really know? Could he possibly be more involved with the hoax than we’d like to think?
Regardless, someone felt like they had to sell a heartwarming, against-all-odds story to either themselves or the public. Notre Dame most likely felt the need to protect Te’o’s sob story for as long as possible. The media published Te’o’s story in the first place because it's the kind of story their readers would want to see. And Te’o felt the need to tell his story to elicit sympathy and give himself an emotional backstory that may have a positive effect on his future football career.
This kind of narrative about an athlete can be found everywhere. It certainly happens here. Denard Robinson isn't just a talented football player: He’s well-liked, comes from a close family and makes an effort to be friendly to students. Everyone loves reading a story that proves just how good of a person he is. We demand these personal stories from the media. When you feel as though you connect to a player and respect them as a human being, the game means so much more.
But, to get stories like these, fact-checking is often ignored and stories of heartbreak and heroism outweigh the not-so-flattering truth. Trying so desperately hard to find a “hero” comes above all else. Yet, many athletes have faults that the public and media just don’t seem comfortable discussing or, for that matter, even hearing. Athletes are a group that we too rarely criticize for discretions outside of their profession.
Maybe it’s time we re-evaluate how we think about athletes’ worth and how we judge them as players. An athlete’s personal heartbreak shouldn’t affect how much media attention he gets before the draft. What should matter is his commitment, work ethic and ability. That should be the story. There shouldn’t be a demand to know an athlete’s relationship history and family values. Most people wouldn’t feel comfortable selling the story of how their grandmother and girlfriend died within six hours of each other. Te’o did, whether it was because he wanted the media attention to further his career, or because he simply just felt comfortable sharing it with the world because every other athlete does.
I had to learn this the hard way. Players that I idolized — that I assumed had overcome great odds personally and professionally — acted in a way that was completely outrageous. Athletes at Michigan, Notre Dame, and many others schools all do things that no one would be proud of, but we ignore it to create a nice, clean narrative that gives them the press they need to further their careers. At the end of the day, sports are all about a game — a game involving highly skilled and usually extremely dedicated athletes — but a game nonetheless. There are a million stories of people overcoming personal adversity to make it where they are today, but stories like Te’o’s simply aren’t one of these.