The Mantei Te’o Hoax: Reaping What We Sow in Our Hero Worship Culture

Why is the Mantei T’eo story so compelling? As Collin Cowherd said on ESPN this morning, this is only a story about some college kid messing up on the internet. Yet, as so often is the case, Cowherd is wrong about this one. When this story first broke, it was one of the more shocking things I have heard in a while. Sure, it’s not a story of international significance. No crimes were committed as far as I can tell, and nobody was physically harmed. Yet.

The story is shocking because it screams “Betrayal!” to every fan of college football who bought into the drama of Mantei T’eo and his dead girlfriend. NBC, who has the contract to televise Notre Dame football, seemingly had a separate camera on Te’o all season, so that each time he made a tackle, he could look up to heaven. Post game pictures of what looked like tears, (but might have been sweat) running through his eye-black accompanied every story of Notre Dame’s great season.

Then, as the discussion of post season awards started heating up, NBC and others, played up the dead girlfriend angle as part of Te’o’s credentials for winning top awards, including the Heisman Trophy. Te’o even spoke of his dead girlfriend on the night of the Heisman ceremony on December 8th. Well, Te’o didn’t win the Heisman, and there are a lot of people around football today, probably even at Notre Dame, who are very happy the award went to Johnny Football. This incident is embarrassing enough without having to deal with questions about the Heisman.

(As a side note, the problem with Te’o’s teary tribute on December 8th, is that we now know he was aware of the hoax by December 6th at the latest. It’s not the point of this writing to decide whether Te’o was part of the hoax, or a victim of the hoax, or the designer of the hoax, etc. But it’s pretty clear that the Notre Dame Athletic Director’s tears surrounding his declaration of Te’o’s purity on January 16th are looking mighty silly.)

Ever since ABC starting doing “Up Close and Personal” segments as part of their Olympic coverage many years ago, there seems to be a media feeding frenzy to uncover the athlete who has overcome the most hardship in order to rise to the heights their athletic talent has taken them. This is not in any way to denigrate the great accomplishments of those who have, in fact, risen above adversity. But one can imagine the production meetings as modern sports shows try to figure out what the angle should be for this particular event.

“John, I’ve got a girl who was born with webbed feet and speech impediment who learned how to play beach volleyball.”

“No, no, no. My guy was born in Alabama and ate nothing but collard greens and grits for the first 12 years of his life and didn’t have cable tv, but still managed to make the crew team from Harvard and now the Olympics.”

“Wait, what about my guy who was abandoned by his parents at birth, was raised by wolves in the woods of Wyoming until one day he emerged, survived summer camp at Penn State, cut off his fingers and toes in a blender accident, learned to ring doorbells with his nose, had this miracle surgery to attach baboon phalanges to his stubs, and then went on to be second alternate on the cycling team.”


When did it become unacceptable to root for athletic achievements even if there was no tear-jerking story behind it? I suppose it wouldn’t be hard to make the argument that this is just the logical extension of the “hero-culture” of our athletes. It starts so young, when you see a 5 year old on a soccer field who is actually able to get out of his own way long enough for the ball to dribble off his knee and into the net because the goalie was bent over tying his shoes when the play happened. All through middle school and high school, athletes learn that there really is something special about themselves because of the physical feats they can perform. If we can highlight something they overcame to get there, than the feat is all the more significant.

Parents, coaches, teachers, classmates, and fans all contribute to creating this privileged class of young men and women who often, and understandably, parlay their status into all sorts of unearned benefits. In both high schools where I taught, I had athletes come up to me and ask for favors with my grade book and looked absolutely stunned when I turned them down. “But you’re a coach, coach!” they’d say. They really had no place in their psyche for someone telling them no.

We can extend this sense of privilege to countless cases of sexual assault, robbery, cheating, and the like. Once the national media gets involved, then this sense of privilege moves off campus and extends across the country. When I’m watching a game and there’s a great play, I have to chuckle every time I see the athlete involved in the play, looking up at the video screens to watch what he just did. It’s all part of the greatness that they are. It’s a small thing, but it is an indication of how much value is placed on air time and highlights.

(On another side note, one of the things that I praise the Michigan High School Athletic Association for is their unwillingness to allow Michigan athletes to participate in national All-Star competitions. Michigan teams also cannot travel very far to play teams from other states and are thus denied a spot on ESPN’s national high school game of the week. MHSAA properly understands the role of athletics in high schools and knows there’s plenty of time for the top half percent to get their TV time once they leave high school.)

So it’s in this culture that Mantei Te’o and his family were handed a dead girlfriend. Who is to blame them or NBC, ESPN, etc., for using this sadness to promote the greatness of the athlete. If it leads to a more viewers of Notre Dame games and few more Heisman votes for Te’o, then all the better. As the legend grew, so did the level of betrayal felt by anyone who allowed themselves to get caught up it. If Te’o was really duped, then he ought to be embarrassed, but all of us, too, lost a bit of our integrity because we once again bought the story and allowed it to color what we saw happening on the field. Te’o WAS a better player because his girlfriend died. Yet today we’re left looking around and wondering how we all could have been so stupid.

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