Saturday, January 19, 2013

Too good to be true

There's an old line that's popular in the circles of grizzled, ink-stained wretches: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Such bleak humor was popular among newspaper folk before the industry entered its current death throes, of course, but in it lies an important message for journalists and media consumers alike -- credulity is not a virtue.

That willingness to question everything has been shown as embarrassingly lacking in the ongoing Manti Te'o "girlfriend" saga. In brief, for those not immersed in Sporting Culture: Te'o -- a devout Mormon of Samoan descent and standout linebacker for the University of Notre Dame football team -- received many accolades for his play this season, but that praise was amplified by the presence of a too-good-to-be-true narrative that tugged at even the hardest of heartstrings. Prior to the Fighting Irish's game against Michigan State, Te'o learned that not only had his grandmother died, but girlfriend Lennay Kekua succumbed to cancer. Taking the field with a heavy heart, Notre Dame's emotional leader played the game of his life and led the team to a 20-3 victory, receiving the game ball from coach Brian Kelly to take back to Hawaii in honor of Kekua.

At least, that's what we were told. As it turns out, Kekua and the narratives spun around her untimely demise were all a load of blarney. "Lennay Kekua" never actually existed -- despite some claims to the contrary -- and was the creation of at least two individuals out to pull a hoax on Te'o. Why this hoax was perpetrated is just one of many questions still lingering over this sordid affair. According to a Notre Dame statement, Te'o and his family notified the school on December 26 (almost two weeks before the national championship game against Alabama) that the player had learned he'd been duped. Why did this news take so long to surface, and why did it require the intervention of Deadspin, a popular sports website but not exactly a bastion of investigative journalism?

According to Deadspin: "A friend of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo [one of the hoax's alleged perpetrators -- ed.] told us he was '80 percent sure' that Manti Te'o was 'in on it,' and that the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua's death with publicity in mind." That's it -- publicity? That doesn't make much sense. How could a captain on an undefeated team at a school that is a darling of the American sports media possibly be starved for attention? It almost seems too tawdry to think that this was all a cynical ploy to boost the sympathy vote in Te'o's Heisman Trophy campaign. Then again, his father did very publicly announce that the family had "black listed" the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for daring to run a picture that showed Te'o in a less-than-positive light. Apples and trees and such....

If Te'o is, in fact, merely the innocent victim of this still-nebulous hoax, he must be among the most credulous people currently walking the planet. According to the South Bend Tribune, the love-struck couple first met in 2009, became friends the next year and moved to being a couple in early 2012. However, the evidence amassed by Deadspin shows Te'o and the entity that was Kekua first interacted in October 2011, via Twitter. Despite the assertions of Te'o and his family, the couple never met in person and their only contact was through phone calls, texts and tweets. The timeline, like the relationship itself, is a mess to untangle. In an era with Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts and other such programs, it seems odd for a person to fall so madly in love with someone whom they only know in an audio and digital sense.

Of course, if Te'o did unquestioningly accept everything regarding the supposed relationship, he is far from alone. Like an overeager defensive back on the receiving end of a double move, the media bit hard and got badly burned. Sports journalists are in full pearl-clutching mode, asking themselves how they could've been so easily led astray, while the once-accepted wisdom of journalists having finer-tuned baloney detectors than most takes yet another battering. In fairness, it's exceedingly rare for anyone -- let alone a star athlete at a high-profile university -- to make up a girlfriend out of thin air and extend the charade in such length and detail. However, according to Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel (one of the many journalists to lionize Te'o), even a cursory bit of fact-checking turned up several problems with the story.
But in retrospect there were some red flags. When I checked Lexis Nexis to find out more about Kekua, I couldn't find anything, though that's not uncommon for a college-aged student.
Nor was there anything on her supposed brother, Koa. I was unable to track down any obituaries or funeral notices, but that might be explained by the fact that she had three recent places she called home, or by her family not wanting publicity.
I called Mike Eubanks at Stanford to check Kekua's graduation year. Te'o wasn't sure if it was 2010 or 2011. Eubanks is an assistant athletic director for football and he coordinates on-campus recruiting visits. He knew Te'o from Stanford recruiting him in 2008 and '09 -- Stanford had gone after him hard. Eubanks, who directed Stanford's football media relations this season, couldn't find her in the alumni directory and thought it was odd that, on such a small campus, he'd never heard of a student dating Te'o. This was the most glaring sign I missed. I thought that maybe she didn't graduate, so we took any reference to Stanford out of the story.
We searched for details about the car crash. Brian Te'o told our fact checker and Manti told me that a drunk driver had hit her. We couldn't find any articles about that accident and took the drunk driving reference out. It was just a car accident.
For the interview on Sunday afternoon Te'o and I sat in the linebacker meeting room in Notre Dame's football facility and he looked straight at me as he spoke. His eyes welled up at times. The only time he didn't speak with confidence was when I asked how they met. I didn't press him, as it was clearly something he didn't want to share. I suspected they may have met online, understood he wouldn't have wanted that public and moved on.
If there's one positive in this whole affair, it's that no one (other than the figment of someone's imagination) was actually hurt. Te'o and his family are no doubt embarrassed, but he will still get drafted by an NFL team and likely make millions of dollars in the future, even if his draft stock temporarily wanes.

There is one other message to be taken away from this affair -- Notre Dame Football must be defended at any cost. After learning that Te'o had been scammed, the university immediately launched an investigation into the hoax while athletic director Jack Swarbrick made a teary, public show of support for the now-former player.

Contrast that swift investigation and show of support with the six months it took Notre Dame to determine that no one was to blame for the death of Declan Sullivan, a football videographer who was filming practice 40 feet in the air when his hydraulic lift tipped over in a 53 mph wind gust.
The Rev. John Jenkins, the university president, said he ultimately was responsible, but he doesn't expect any action to be taken against him.
"We did not find any individual who disregarded safety or was indifferent to safety. Consequently, there was not any individual discipline," Jenkins said. "Our conclusion is that it's a collective responsibility that must be deal with collectively as we move forward."
Everyone is responsible; therefore, no one is responsible. How convenient. Calls for Kelly to be held responsible were brushed aside since he "depended on advice from a number of people, including director of football operations Chad Klunder, then-head athletic trainer Jim Russ and Tim Collins, director of football video and film," the report said.

The university couldn't release the video of the incident because, according to Notre Dame's lawyer, it contained "highly proprietary trade secret information." Swarbrick, meanwhile, was in full damage-control mode. From Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock:
On Thursday, during a news conference, Swarbrick seemed most interested in making sure he retained his job and minimizing the public-relations damage.
Swarbrick made it clear that he was at practice less than four or five minutes before the lift holding Sullivan fell over. Swarbrick told reporters that he was on a conference call before he walked over to practice — the inference being he wasn’t there long enough to tell Sullivan to come down from the lift.
Swarbrick then suggested the winds gusted with an unprecedented ferocity, leading to the accident that killed Sullivan.
“Things started flying by me that otherwise had been stationary for all of practice,” Swarbrick said. “Gatorade containers, towels, etc. I noticed the netting on the goal posts start to bend dramatically, and I heard a crash.”
How does Swarbrick know what was “stationary for all of practice” if he only arrived four or five minutes before the crash? And given the weather reports for that part of northern Indiana on Wednesday, it’s ridiculous for Swarbrick to suggest the 50-mph wind gusts were surprising.
They just ooze concern. Football comes first, and don't you forget it.

Contrast the university's circling of wagons around Te'o with its response to Lizzy Seeberg, who dared to accuse one of the sainted Fighting Irish of sexual assault. Seeberg, who received text messages from said player (who ended up playing in the title game) advising her "Don't do anything you would regret" and "Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea," committed suicide 10 days after the incident.
Notre Dame's response to Seeberg's accusation:
— Police waited 13 days to interview the accused perp (that's three days after Seeberg died), who was eventually found "not responsible" for misbehavior by a disciplinary board.
— The university president refused to meet with her parents, claiming it would undermine his impartiality in the event he had to make a decision related to the case.
— Coach Brian Kelly made light of the number of Chicago Tribune reporters asking him about the case.
— A university official and a trustee allegedly spread rumors that Seeberg was a liar who was in fact sexually aggressive toward the player she accused on the night in question.
Notre Dame's response to Te'o's allegation that he'd been falsely led to believe he had a girlfriend on the Internet:
— The athletic department hired private investigators to look into the matter.
— The school held a press conference the night the news broke at which it denied that its player was complicit in the hoax.
— The school held a press conference at which its athletic director called the situation "a really frightening experience" and "an incredible tragedy."
— The school held a press conference at which its athletic director called the situation "an incredible tragedy" and began crying.
Melinda Henneberger is a Washington Post writer and Notre Dame alumna. Her reporting on the Seeburg case has been as excellent as her findings were infuriating.
In a sense, Lizzy's ordeal didn't end with her death. The damage to her memory since then is arguably more of a violation than anything she reported to police -- and all the more shocking because it was not done thoughtlessly, by a kid in a moment he can't take back, but on purpose, by the very adults who heavily market the moral leadership of a Catholic institution. Notre Dame's mission statement could not be clearer: "The university is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake." But in this case, the university did just the opposite.
In life, Lizzy was both politically and personally conservative, a brand new member of the College Republicans who led her parish youth group and spoke openly about saving herself for marriage. But Notre Dame officials have painted and passed around a different picture of the dead 19-year-old. Sotto voce, they portray the player as wrongly accused by an aggressive young woman who lied to get back at him for sexually rejecting her the first moment they were ever alone together.
The player's lawyer, Notre Dame alumnus Joe Power, isn't whispering. He shouted in my ear about the "complete phony lie" designed to slander an exemplary young gentleman. His client, who has never been named or made to miss a football practice, had a reputation as a young man with a temper among some parents at his high school, and was suspended from high school over allegations of misbehavior.
More to come from him....
"Have you ever read the book To Kill a Mockingbird?" Power asked in a phone interview. Because, as in Harper Lee's classic, "this young lady was the aggressor." According to America's Best Lawyers, Power is the top personal injury litigator in the city of Chicago. Barreling right past innuendo, he said it was Lizzy who "had removed her blouse" and thrown herself on top of the player. And the player? "He put a stop to it, because his parents had taught him that was wrong. It's all untrue, according to the two independent witnesses."
He's referring to the player's friend who texted Lizzy, and to his date. Neither was in the room when the incident occurred, but before they left, Power said, "They observed that she was being rather forward and dancing with the young man; she was dancing for him." (Lizzy described the same moment this way: While they were dancing, the player began "pulling me towards him. It was uncomfortable but I didn't know how to stop it. Then he told me to give him a lap dance and I didn't know what to do. He pulled me down on his lap and he had his legs spread out. He started pulling my body around his crotch area and told me to keep doing it.")
When I asked Power whether his client's best friend and that friend's girlfriend could really be considered independent witnesses, he yelled, "First of all, you're a liar, because it's not his best friend, and she's no longer his girlfriend!" The two young men do now room together, in any case, and on social media the other young man posts video clips of his best plays, along with admiring comments.
"You should be writing for the John Birch Society, or the Ku Klux Klan," the lawyer continued, presumably because the player is black. "If you were in To Kill a Mockingbird, you'd be on the side of the Klan," out to destroy a black man falsely accused by a white woman. "And if you slander this innocent young man," he thundered, "you will pay!"
In a phone call in response to a message that I was working on a story about the Seeberg case, Brown initially offered to walk me through the particulars of the case off the record, then withdrew the offer when I told him I would not be bound by such an agreement in a way that would keep me from reporting information I already had. In a follow-up email, Brown said Notre Dame officials had decided not to meet with me because circumstances had changed now that I was writing a story -- just as I had been when we spoke. Also, he said, they had elected to honor their long-standing policy on privacy and their promise to the Seeberg family not to reveal the details of the case. When I wrote back to say that the Seebergs were unaware of any such promise but would be happy to sign a waiver making any and all relevant information public, he did not respond.
One Notre Dame parent and longtime donor I interviewed, who asked that his name not be used because his daughter had reported being raped by a fellow Notre Dame student, said a top university official told him Lizzy was without question the aggressor in the situation: "She was all over the boy."
Though unrecognizable to those who knew her, the portrait of Lizzy being passed around does have some bold strokes in common with the caricatures of other women who have reported being sexually assaulted at Notre Dame over the decades. In 1974, a South Bend woman who was hospitalized and then spent a month in a psychiatric facility after reporting being gang-raped by six Notre Dame football players was described by a top university administrator as "a queen of the slums with a mattress tied to her back." No charges were filed, but the accused were suspended for a year for violating school rules. At the time, even so revered a figure as Holy Cross Fr. Theodore Hesburgh said: "We didn't have to talk to the girl; we talked to the boys." Hesburgh, who is 94, made that remark to Notre Dame alumnus Robert Sam Anson, who in his student days had founded the campus newspaper. Anson quoted Hesburgh in a story very much like this one, written 35 years ago.
Those who argue that, if anything, Notre Dame is too hard on its athletes regularly cite the 2002 expulsion of three players and a former player accused of gang-raping a woman, though none of them served a day in jail. But their accuser insists they were only expelled after officials failed to dissuade her from going public: "First they said, 'No one's going to believe you.' " When she went to South Bend police anyway, Notre Dame officials "treated me horribly at every opportunity. I had PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and I was afraid they [the players] were going to come after me again, but [school officials] wouldn't let me park my car on campus because they said that wouldn't be fair to the other students. When I tried to make an appointment with the counseling center, they called me back and said they couldn't see me because of pending legal matters, though the legal matter they were talking about was the state versus these four rapists."
"Nothing happened." "She lied." "She wanted it." "It wasn't really that bad." Read the whole thing. Go on, read the whole damn thing and see for yourself to what lengths an institution of higher learning will go to protect its cash cow.

And if this all sounds more than a bit reminiscent of the culture surrounding Penn State football that so shocked and horrified the nation, you're not too far off.
But this conspiracy of silence and slander is bigger than just the school. Deindustrialized South Bend, Indiana, is a company town, and the company is Notre Dame football. The football program in 2012 was valued by Forbes as the third “most valuable” in the country, behind far larger state universities in Texas and Michigan. This is just the formal economy. Informally, every hotel, every bar, every kid at the side of the road selling bottled water depends on Notre Dame football. Home games generate $10 million in local spending for a community of just 100,000 people. It is the beating economic heart of South Bend and women have become, in this sclerotic set up, the collateral damage.
But the cone of silence that surrounds a company college football town is not enough to understand why Penn State’s rape scandal was front-page news the second the Sandusky scandal went public and Notre Dame has been largely protected by the press. The only answer that makes sense is that raping women has become “normalized” in our culture, while raping little boys has not. The only answer that makes sense is that the rape of a young boy sets all sorts of alarms of horror in the minds of the very male sports media, while the rape of women does not. The only answer that makes sense is that it’s been internalized that while boys are helpless in the face of a predator, women are responsible for their assault. The accusers are the accused.
Notre Dame has a problem -- in fact, "problem" is probably too charitable a description when female alumni are warning prospective female students that rape is just part of campus culture. Henneberger says she's not hopeful that the current university leadership, which she calls part of the problem, will do anything. Why would they? The football team is good again, Notre Dame is on everyone's lips, and the money keeps rolling in.

Manti Te'o's story is too good to be true, and Notre Dame football is too big to fail. If Lizzy Seeberg and other all-too-real women like her end up as casualties in the fight to maintain the profitable status quo, well, that's just too bad.

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