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Timothy Burroughs: Bad journalism is to blame

By Timothy Burroughs, Columnist
Published January 22, 2013

Sports fans share in the same emotional rollercoaster that athletes experience each game day. We immerse ourselves in these athletes’ challenges, individual statistics and personal lives. Though some people might question this irrational dedication to competition, athletics allow us to share in one of the purest examples of the human experience. This combination of physical exertion and raw emotion makes it impossible to not romanticize sports.

This year, University of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o represented the emotional struggle and accomplishment that we love to see in sports. However, recent developments have revealed that his story was an elaborate hoax. Te’o’s “relationship” with girlfriend Lennay Kekua came to an end when she lost her fight with leukemia, just after the passing of Te’o’s grandmother. The linebacker's inspiring story was the tragedy of the season until last week, when Deadspin published an article that questioned Kekua’s existence. It was soon discovered Te’o never actually met Kekua and their relationship consisted solely of Internet interactions and phone calls. Te’o issued statements and gave an off-camera interview to ESPN in which he claimed to be a victim of an elaborate practical joke. He asserted no prior knowledge of the hoax and apologized for embellishing details and misleading the public about his relationship.

Sports fans are bewildered — the most emotionally moving sports feature of the year has quickly been reduced to an Internet relationship with a fictitious girlfriend. This has pushed many to question the journalistic integrity and credibility of ESPN, Sports Illustrated and other sports publications.

In a Jan. 17 column in The Michigan Daily, Adrienne Roberts concludes, "to get stories like these, fact-checking is often ignored and stories of heartbreak and heroism outweigh the not-so-flattering truth.” I admit that I, too, was appalled by industry-leading publications cutting corners and ignoring the most basic fact-check. Journalistic integrity is the responsibility of media outlets, and I’m disappointed in these reporters and organizations for their lack of due-diligence.

In her column, Roberts goes on to argue, “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.” I understand that athletes don’t always live up to the extremely high standards fans hold them to. Taking performance-enhancing drugs and lying have been the downfall of many sports idols, but that shouldn’t belittle the importance of sports feature articles, such as the Te’o story.

For fans, it’s the stories of obstacles athletes face that illustrate their humanity. Sports are much more than a box score. By exploring the lives of those who play, we give athletics new emotional meaning.

The fabrication and false reporting of these stories show a lack of effort by reporters. Stories without any substance are perhaps the worst offenders. One of the best examples is the countless hours of coverage dedicated to Lolo Jones during the 2012 Summer Olympics. Many speculated, probably correctly, that this attention wasn't due to her athletic prowess or personal past. Instead, the media chose to focus on her attractiveness and self-proclaimed virginity. However, instances of bad journalism should not dehumanize athletes by ignoring their personal lives.

In Roberts’s column she continues, “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.” I’d argue it was more than just a game when Jessie Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Summer Olympics as a black athlete in Nazi Germany. On a less significant note, the publicizing of Tiger Woods’s extramarital affairs sent him into a slump from which he has yet to emerge. There are important lessons to be learned in both of these cases, and it’s up to journalists to responsibly share these stories of humanity and adversity with the rest of the world.

The Te’o controversy didn’t have to happen. It was simply the result of laziness. The incident not only left fans feeling betrayed, but also marred one of the most remarkable seasons in the history of college football. We need to relish athletic and personal success, celebrate the heroes and despise the crooks and liars. As anyone who has followed Lance Armstrong’s career knows, it’s never that simple, but journalists are responsible for telling these personal stories and letting the fans decide.

Timothy Burroughs can be reached at timburr@umich.edu.