Published January 17, 2013 - 10:00am
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It was the BCS matchup of century. Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty taking on a resurgent, undefeated Notre Dame squad. It couldn’t get any better for ESPN and the stakeholders involved. Nosebleed seats were selling for $1500, and ESPN figured to break records for ratings.
Then Nick Saban spoiled the party by systematically destroying the Fighting Irish in embarrassing fashion. We all saw the game. From kickoff, the game was over.
I remember sitting with my wife watching the pregame broadcast on ESPN when the Manti Te’o story was brought up. My wife of course was intrigued by the emotion of the piece so I relayed to her the story about how Te’o's grandmother and girlfriend died on the same day. However, I mentioned to her how ESPN had run this story 50 times this season and who knows what “girlfriend” actually means. That label means a lot of different things to different people. While mildly skeptical of the whole thing, I had no idea that it would turn out to mean a fake online girlfriend that never existed.
My original skepticism had nothing to do with Notre Dame or Manti Te’o, but more to do with the nature of media today. The lesson to be learned here is that ESPN is not in the business of investigative journalism. They are in the business of ratings. They want people to watch football so that you pay your cable bill and billions hit the ESPN coffers. ESPN is in the business of looking past the details in order to provide yet another reason to watch.
When it comes to Notre Dame – a historic program absent from relevancy for decades – ESPN needed a face for the team. Since the team was essentially a defensive team, Manti Te’o fit the profile perfectly.
After ESPN ran with the heart wrenching story back in early October about Manti’s close losses, the stage was set for a media frenzy. As Notre Dame continued winning, it was the perfect convergence of sloppy, ratings-focused journalism story telling and a resurgence of the historic Fighting Irish. When Alabama achieved the #2 slot to play the Irish in Miami for the BCS Championship, it was the perfect storm.
I never thought Manti Te’o was a bad player, but I knew for the entire second half of the season that he was now more of a machine driven by the media than a quality linebacker. He was and is a good linebacker, despite an awful performance in Miami, but the media made him out to be bigger than football. Linebackers like Jarvis Jones and Kevin Minter had comparable seasons, but Minter and Jones were never in the Heisman talk. Te’o of course was a runner up to Johnny Manziel’s Heisman win with many of the land’s sportswriters penning columns saying Te’o was the deserved one.
What we need to realize is that the media frames the debate for the masses in many areas of life. Politics and sports are two obvious areas. Whether it is the relentless rhetoric of the fiscal cliff or the constant highlights and chat about Te’o's superior capabilities at linebacker, the masses frame their opinions based on the incessant nightly reminders from the nation’s media.
The Heisman trophy is no different. It’s a popularity contest driven by the media. The formula for winning the Heisman is to be an above average player, play for a winning team and have the media buy into you. The separation between Te’o and Minter and Jones as football players was minimal at best, but the separation in the eyes of the media was enormous.
Ten days ago, much of Manti Te’o's image that the media worked to build up over the course of the season was shattered. Manti Te’o was nonexistent on the biggest stage against the best team he played all year. The Alabama offense embarrassed Notre Dame’s vaunted defense.
Yesterday, Deadspin shattered the rest of that image.
It shouldn’t surprise us that Deadspin was the outfit that broke the story. It was never going to be ESPN. ESPN was all-in on Notre Dame and Te’o for this season. Let me also say that I don’t blame ESPN. Their business is their business and it’s not breaking stories in sports. It’s entertaining us with sports. It’s just important to explain to readers that you shouldn’t be surprised that it was Deadspin that broke the story. Every business has its interests. ESPN is more about broadcasting rights and cable subscription revenue which left a void for Deadspin to fill.
Of course, the ironic part is that ESPN felt the need to apologize for Brent Musburger’s harmless comments about AJ McCarron’s girlfriend. I doubt we’ll see a corporate apology for running with the Te’o hoax for four months.
And so we’re left with quite a bizarre conclusion to the season. Alabama will get another ring, but the topics of discussion are more centered around the girlfriends of players. Whether it’s Manziel’s model girlfriend that he brought to New York, Katherine Webb who is now a superstar thanks to Musburger’s assist and of course the non-existent girlfriend of Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o.
Te’o obviously made inconsistent statements and should probably explain them, but he’s a kid and as I told my wife during the BCS broadcast, the term “girlfriend” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It could be true that Te’o was hoaxed and that he legitimately cared for a person he had never physically met. Frankly, I don’t care. The hoax didn’t exactly harm my life in any way. Let the kid explain himself and let him move on with his NFL career.
Recently, I mentioned to a colleague that it’s quite ridiculous the amount of web traffic that a player’s girlfriend will bring. His response? “Nonsense. That’s what the internet is for.” Fair enough.