The Te’o hoax: Why we care so much, and why we really should not

The narrative is so beautiful: Girlfriend of mega-football star died of leukemia, and boyfriend carried his team to an upset in her honor. The football star then went on to become the second most dominant player in college.

Why second? Because that’s what actually happened, and frankly, first will just be a bit too cliché.

As it turns out, Manti Te’o’s girlfriend was not real; in fact, the “girlfriend” might had been a boy. Many people are now “vaguely enraged” (phrase borrowed from Kolsterman in his letters to Gladwell) because they ended up on the receiving end of the “just kidding” story of the year.

As of right now, nobody knows whether Te’o was involved in this not-so-malicious hoax. In fact, I made a meme for the occasion!


(I actually think it is also incredibly stupid for trying to dupe everyone, but the meme works out better this way)

So why do we care so much about this?

Gladwell, in his letters back to Kolsterman, described this sentiment very adequately:

Earlier this fall, I read many stories about how Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein didn’t even kiss his wife until they were both on the marriage altar. The public reaction was pretty much, “That’s strange, but I guess that’s nice.” It was just a little romantic detail that was widely believed, despite its superficial implausibility. Nobody thought that much about it (and — as far as I can tell — it’s completely true). But imagine if this had been proved to be a conscious fabrication. People would suddenly be outraged that Klein had lied about something they’d never previously cared about.

And I full-heartedly agree. I think there is even a bit more as to why many people are angry – because we really believed the story.

We believed the story because we love them. We love it when a basketball star overcomes sickness to hit the game winning shot, we love it when a squirrel rallies a team from behind to win the championship, we love it when an Asian basketball player defies underdog status and racial prejudice, and we love it when a football player leads his team to prominence after the tragic death of his girlfriend.

We also believe it because the media is powerful. It is our only way of finding out the “truth” short of going to South Bend ourselves and searching through Te’o’s internet history (oh wait, the media basically did that for us).

Because we believed in this story, we feel betrayed when we find out that it’s not true. This reminds me of a Barney quote from How I Met Your Mother: “People like being lied to. They just don’t like finding out they’ve been lied to.” How mad will we be if we find out that Michael Jordon wasn’t sick at all that game? Or that the squirrel was released on purpose to boost popularity? Or that Jeremy Lin is…um…not Asian?

It’s pretty crazy how much controversy a college football player can stir up nowadays, but really, why is this a big deal? Te’o is just a college student playing for his school. We shouldn’t even be paying that much attention to his personal life in the first place. Why are we giving SO much publicity to him? So what he was dumb and fell in love with a “girl” through texts and Twitter? Even if he did lie, is it worth broadcasting on national news over and over? Whatever Te’o did or did not do, it is better than Armstrong lying about doping, or Reggie Bush taking illegal benefits, or the Saints’ bounty program, or all the DUI and domestic violence stories we read on ESPN.

There aren’t any direct victims here, in fact, about $3,000 were raised for leukemia research in the girlfriend’s name. While it is not ethical to lie (if Te’o did lie), it certainly isn’t ethical either to construct this righteous image of a college football star and tear it apart in front of a national audience. The one thing we can be sure of is that the media is the winner. If there is a story that the media loves more than “new found strength due to death of a close one,” it is the fall of a hero.

Why is it that young adults have to give up their privacy when they choose to play for a popular sport in college? Or that they are assumed to be either flawless or dirty liars? These would not be issues if we just treat the athletes as who they are: college students playing sports. The Te’o hoax is funny and bizarre, but it really doesn’t mean much. We are mad because we bought into the system and it failed us, and if we zoom out to the bigger picture, that is exactly why being sports fans can be so devastatingly heartbreaking, so shouldn’t we be used to it by now?