SB Nation’s Jason Kirk posed an interesting question this morning: why are we all paying such rapt attention to the mystery of Manti Te’o and Lennay Kekua? In the past 24 hours, it’s certainly not the story that has the biggest impact on college football going forward (that would be Chip Kelly’s departure). And it’s not nearly as troubling as the NCAA’s stance – or lack thereof – on a major health and safety issue.
I suspect there are a few possible answers to Jason’s question, many of which are not especially flattering about us as a sports audience. Still, there’s one issue I keep coming back to – the media’s continued need to divide athletes into the old Western dichotomy of Black Hats and White Hats.
Whether Manti Te’o is a liar or a sucker or a little bit of both, Deadspin’s story demonstrates that he is not the six minute White Hat profile video ESPN and others have presented him to be. The problem is, he never was, and something inside of you should have known that to be true, not because Te’o is actually a Black Hat, but because he’s a person, and a young one at that. And people are necessarily complicated and multifaceted and rarely entirely virtuous or entirely evil.
Presenting Te’o as a White Hat – and only a White Hat – wasn’t just irresponsible journalism because it was wrong. It was insulting, because it asks us to ignore what we’ve learned about the complexity of human experience and buy into a threadbare archetype. The same journalists that tore their hair out with Paterno-regret last year and vowed they’d learned something turned right around and started searching for the next Sports Person We Can Believe In. Maybe it’s just easier to present the simple version of a person. Maybe it’s more comforting to think we live in a world where people are either capital-G Good or capital-B Bad.
It sure as hell isn’t more realistic. This is, I think, what’s makes the 30 For 30 series so appealing – they take the time and effort to present multiple, often conflicting, sides of the men and women of sports and letting the viewer draw his or her own conclusions. Calling Marv Marinovich a totalitarian father is easy. Examining the hows and whys of his relationship with his son, and the implications twenty-plus years later? That’s a lot harder. But it’s also more accurate.
There’s going to be plenty of hand-wringing over who knew what and when and what should have been asked. But a fact-checked White Hat is still an incomplete portrait of a person. We don’t have to kill our heroes. We just have to stop building them.