01/17/2013 02:25 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

Manti Te'o, ESPN and Character Porn


Big-time sports in the United States has long been propelled by the myth-making of those who cover the enterprise. Sports media have been lionizing extraordinary athletic virtue since sports became a profit-making venture in this country in the latter half of the 19th century. But the last generation or so has witnessed the emergence of a public discourse that is evermore cynical and critical of modern athletes, who are typically viewed as loud-mouthed, self-absorbed and only concerned with how much money they can make and how much attention they can get.

In that context, with the explosion of cheating scandals related to performance-enhancing drugs, and the emergence of a vast sports media-industrial complex anchored by ESPN, sports media have become seemingly more desperate to find the lone heroic figure who stands out in a sea of selfishness and depravity.

Demonization and lionization -- two sides of a media coin impelled by a breathless insistence on turning sports into something more than a contest of athletic greatness. The ESPNs of the world have made "character" an attribute of athletic worthiness every bit as important as how fast someone runs the 40, or how far one can hit a baseball. In the process, the sports media complex has appropriated for itself the mantle of moral arbiter, premised on the belief that because athletic directors, coaches and athletes will return your texts and because you spend a lot of time hanging around players in a locker room, you have unique insight into the character of the athletes you cover and, presumably, the human soul more broadly.

The extraordinary Deadspin story detailing the non-existence of the girlfriend of Manti Te'o has utterly demolished this most recent effort at myth-making. There is still a lot we don't know about the story. But the only remaining shock about this story ought to be our ongoing power to be shocked that someone we thought we knew turned out to be otherwise. Public figures, athletes or otherwise, are not our friends. We don't know them. We have created cartoon character representations of them -- villains and heroes -- in order to tell ourselves depressingly simplistic stories of right and wrong. But public figures, whether movie stars, politicians or athletes are in the public eye not because of their unique and virtuous characters, but because, generally, they are really good at doing one thing really well in endeavors which happen to bring a lot of fame and (usually) fortune. Out of this larger group of public figures, we've chosen to go beyond evaluating some of them with respect to their particular field of endeavor. Instead, within this especially favored circle, we've chosen to confer on them the qualities of extraordinary valor, courage, selflessness -- as embodiments of all of the good qualities lacking in ordinary people and especially in so many of their peers. Joe Paterno, Lance Armstrong, Pete Rose, to name a few. There is a cultural immaturity, it seems, at the heart of this complex -- a need to see humans in black and white, as purely good or bad. Of course, how well and ably you ingratiate yourself with the media goes a depressingly long way in assuring that you will be deemed an individual of exceptional character. (On the flip side, there are plenty of athletes who have done a lot of good but because they failed to play the media game, found their characters regularly questioned. Stephon Marbury is one such example).

There remains a pretense among major sports media outlets -- ESPN first and foremost among them -- that they are journalistic enterprises, concerned first and foremost with reporting the truth without fear or favor. In reality, of course, ESPN is beset by endlessly entangled conflicts of interests and remains, above all else, an extraordinarily profitable entertainment enterprise. In that light, it's no surprise that Deadspin played Harlem Globetrotters to the Network's (and every other sports media outlet) Washington Generals on the court of real journalism in the Te'o story.

The deeper problem revealed by the Te'o story, however, is not even really the credulousness of these self-appointed arbiters of good character. Unlike in the Armstrong and Paterno cases, Te'o appears only to have hurt himself, whatever his level of involvement in the hoax. In that regard, the young man probably needs some help. But I'd be very happy if ESPN stood down from its watch as judge and jury in the matter of character. Despite their countless hours of bleating about who's a good guy and who's a bad guy and in spite of all their access, the Network has not, in the end, gained any special insight into the human soul nor served any larger public good. They should stick to what they really know -- broadcasting about sports. As for moral education, how about hanging up the cleats and letting us figure that out for ourselves.