Sports  Sports aren’t a bedtime story

Manti Te'o, 'chokers', and the media's obsession with narrative

“Life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.” – Thomas Pynchon, V. 

The sports world, was shaken by the January 16 report that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend was the product of an elaborate hoax (Te’o’s involvement in the hoax, or lack thereof, is still unknown). But read that sentence again. Think of how absurd it is. Te’o, a famed college football player and Heisman Trophy finalist, had a fake girlfriend, who, while never existing, died.

Throughout the college football season, the media touted Te’o as an inspiration because he had played, and played exceedingly well, days after the (absolutely true) death of his grandmother and (absolutely untrue) “death” of his “girlfriend” on September 11 and 12, 2012. Fawning stories about Te’o soon followed as more and more sportswriters found out about the hardships Te’o was playing through. Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on Te’o, his grandmother, and his “girlfriend.” But no one bothered to check whether any of it was real. The writer of the Sports Illustrated piece, Pete Thamel, admitted in January that he had run into some “red flags” while writing the piece  (no obituary for Te’o’s “girlfriend,” no record of her in any student directory, et cetera), but had basically written around them at his editors’ behest.

Herein lies the problem: the sports media is obsessed with narrative at the expense of good reporting. When the chance comes to tout a heartwarming story like the one revolving around Te’o (football player at beloved college leads team to upset in face of incredible adversity!), mainstream media has no reservations in running with it. Te’o’s story made   Notre Dame’s undefeated season somehow better because it added gravitas and raised the stakes. The story was certainly more compelling, despite how far it strayed from the truth.

But the trend doesn’t end at just heartwarming stories. There are other narratives that the media promotes to add to the importance of the games they’re watching. For example, players who haven’t won a championship in their sport are often put into the ‘can they win the big one?’ story. If they continue to fall short, they are given the label of ‘choker’ – someone who fails in big moments. From that point on, the story becomes “can they show up or will they choke again?” These are the talking points for the 24-hour news cycle, a way to add stakes to the game. Players become defined by their media-created narrative; this narrative becomes an endlessly repeatable talking point.

Such elaborate tales enable sports viewers a way to make sense of the unpredictability of the game. With the exception of a completely individual sport such as golf or gymnastics, where the competition is centered on only one athlete, games are not decided by one action or one player. With each play of every game there are hundreds of things happening at once, each the reaction to another, each spawning new effects. You cannot encapsulate a game, much less a season, with one storyline. But the narrative complex chugs on, attempting to do just that.

Sports are compelling precisely because they are so unpredictable; the better team on paper does not win everytime. These surprising moments are why people continue to watch; nothing is assured. But the creation of a narrative is a way to hem in the randomness of every game. It’s more comforting when something falls into a predictable rhythm. The mass randomness of the sport is given a plot. Assigning the label of ‘choker’ to a quarterback is easier than considering that a team’s loss can never be attributed to just the quarterback. It’s easier to call the hockey goalie a ‘headcase’ than to explain the numerous offensive and defensive mistakes that led to the loss. And it sounds better that the linebacker is making tackles all over the field in memory of his dead girlfriend. We want our scapegoats and we want our heroes; we want something to explain the outcome of every game.

There are certainly patterns in sports; some teams or athletes spend a decade or more succeeding within their field. It’s part of the media’s role to notice these patterns better than anyone else, to point them out to the general public. They’ve erred, however, by narrowing these patterns into narratives. By simplifying or extrapolating something so much, it loses its veracity. It becomes easier, but less true. For the Te’o case, there was actually no substance: it was all a hoax. But the rest of the narratives fans hear every day on the radio, or read online, or watch on TV, are false in a different way. The complexity of the games, which should be compelling in its own right, have been elevated into something more palatable – a fable.