Mythmakers

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By Ross Lucksinger
Posted Jan 17, 2013
Copyright © 2014 InsideTexas.com


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Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o (Creative Commons source: Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)

Ross Lucksinger gives his obligatory Manti Te'o column on the nature of myth in college football and the confirmation bias that led to the collective suckering of sports media.

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C:\>run LucksingerColumn

LucksingerColumn>mack brown

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C:\debug.exe

debug>[C:] LucksingerColumn/mack brown [command-line: I just want to write a stupid off-season coaching analysis column]

ERROR TYPE:511

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[ERROR TYPE:511] – Must write Manti Te'o opinion to proceed.

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Program type: Internet Columnist.
Must write Manti Te'o opinion to proceed.
Do you wish to proceed: Y/N?

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C:\>Y

*sigh*

Ok. Fine. Let's do this.

Back in August, when I selected Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) for my Book of the Month feature, I quoted Herbert, who wrote shortly before his death: “Dune was aimed at this whole idea of the infallible leader because my view of history says that mistakes made by a leader (or made in a leader’s name) are amplified by the numbers who follow without question.”

The novelist and journalist had recognized a growing trend in the U.S. of myth-making out of contemporary figures. Perhaps this is, as Neil Gaiman has explored, due to the relatively young age of American civilization and our decided lack of ancient myths. Perhaps it's simply a product of technology and the way information is consumed.

Whatever the collective psychological basis, the need for creation and consumption of these modern myths moves billions in college football, which sells the work of unpaid amateurs to maintain the purity of a wholly for-profit venture.

It's why the entire college football world was suckered into a hoax, and not even a good one.

Seriously. It was a Twitter profile. There wasn't even an obituary for Lennay Kekua. Or anything in Stanford's database. Anything! I had a friend at UT in the Longhorn Band who created a fake student so he could get an extra meal on away game trips. That “scheme” was of greater complexity than this. The lie should not have lasted just from a pure logistical basis. But it did. It did because from a narrative standpoint it was gold.

Confirmation bias demanded that it be true. Notre Dame needed a champion to return the Irish to glory. A hero was needed to slay the dragon of Alabama. A good guy was needed for a soft focus ESPN piece with dramatic B-roll of someone sitting alone in a stadium while Tom Rinaldi speaks...with grave inflection...and dramatic pauses...like this.

What Te'o knew and when he knew it is not yet known. It still needs to be sorted out whether he was caught in a hoax and then let media run with it or if he was pushing for hype or if he was embarrassed after being caught in a hoax and then pushed the story or if he was complicit in the lie the entire time. Either he is a vastly more complex individual than we suspected or, according to Te'o and Notre Dame, a vastly more simple. But the failure of modern sports media is known, and it is total.

Not that this will change anything. It didn't change after Paterno and it won't change now. ESPN will come out of this fine. The story will be twisted to focus on the lies and not on those who allowed it. Te'o will talk about it in an ESPN exclusive, cry, and get a book deal (by the way, Manti, I will totally ghost-write that if you want). No blame for the enablers, simply, “Look how you've wronged us,” “we have always been at war with East Asia,” etc.

ESPN will be fine. Sports Illustrated and others who market themselves as competent investigative organizations, not so much. This was one of the factors that prompted Pete Thamel to release every single word Te'o said to him about his fake dead girlfriend in attempt to piece together what happened.

Contrition is valuable, certainly, but reflection is more important. That's what prevents lies from spiraling into a fiction borne of nothing but our own desire for a good story.

As a journalist, I know it's caused me to reflect. For most of Wednesday afternoon I sat staring blankly at my computer screen and questioning everything anyone ever told me in an interview. Is there anything I accepted blindly I should have looked into? Are there any lies I've sold?

I hope it causes everyone in the industry to reflect so that something on this scale of terrible gets cut off by a beat reporter who knows how to use LexisNexis before it turns into a national-level scam. Because nothing good has come from this.

Well...not nothing. At least someone didn't, in fact, die of leukemia.

I call that a win.

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