The Manti Te'o story hit our sports department with all the force of a blindside blitz.
For the better part of half an hour Wednesday afternoon, you could've heard a pin drop in our office, which you know is rare if you've ever been around any of our loud mouths. Everyone in the office hunkered down and read the Deadspin story about Te'o having a fake girlfriend. Then, we tried to process it.
We're still working on that last part.
Where did this story go off the rails?
How is it that so many were misled?
Where did the sports media go wrong?
I'm not entirely sure. Some of the best-known and well-respected media outlets in our business perpetuated the story about the Notre Dame linebacker's girlfriend, the one who survived a car accident, learned she had leukemia, was on the mend, then died. It was a story told by everyone from the South Bend Tribune to Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and ESPN.com.
As we know now, the girlfriend never existed.
It's a wake-up call — those of us in the sports media have to do better.
Around most newsrooms, sports is known as the fun-and-games department. We cover games for a living, so that's understandable.
Still, even the most hard-nosed newsies have to admit that some of the best writing in journalism comes from sports. There are compelling stories. There are interesting narratives.
But none of that matters when you don't get the facts right. And right now, with this Te'o mess, the integrity of everyone in the sports media is in question.
That's how big this hoax story is.
I'll be the first to admit that the thread about Te'o playing for his girlfriend who lost her battle with cancer is the kind of story to which I'm drawn.
For starters, such stories humanize sports figures. So often, it feels like athletes and coaches are completely different from the rest of us. They jump higher. They run faster. They enjoy fame. They have bigger bank accounts.
But they are still people. They have fears and joys and inspirations just like the rest of us. If we write stories about universal themes such as love, loss, family and friendship, that helps you — the reader and the fan — connect to those sports figures in a whole new way.
Take a column that I wrote the same day that news broke about Teo's fake girlfriend. It was about Thunder reserve Kevin Martin and the connection he has to his hometown of Zanesville, Ohio. He has given tens of thousands of dollars to people in need there because, as he said, the citizens of the town pull for each other.
The feedback that I received on that story was overwhelmingly positive. Readers loved the fact that story went beyond the stats and the scouting reports and told them something more about Martin and the kind of person that he is.
I loved it for those reasons, too.
I've loved many stories over my career for those reasons.
But after the Te'o story, I wonder if I've ever been duped by someone at the heart of one of those stories. To my knowledge, I haven't been fooled, but all of us in the sports media are wondering that now. Did we get so swept up in the emotion of the story that we forgot to check the facts? Did we blindly believe someone because, well, we just really, really liked them?
I have a feeling that's what happened with this Te'o story. The guy is so charismatic, so easy to like. When he said he met his girlfriend after a game at Stanford, people believed him. When he said they talked for hours on the phone at night while she was sick, people believed him. And when he balked at putting reporters in touch with members of his girlfriend's family after she died — they were grieving, of course — people didn't push him.
An astute Oklahoman reader named Derek Davis points out that the girlfriend story could've been red flagged had anyone poked around Stanford. The school where Te'o's girlfriend was supposed to have attended is relatively small, and Derek suggests that had one of its students had a car accident, then been battling leukemia, everyone would've known about her.
There were many opportunities for someone to catch this hoax, but no one did.
Truth is, we could've easily fallen into the trap. Notre Dame came to town this past season, of course, so our sports department had every reason to write about the face of the Fighting Irish.
But we didn't. Too many other good stories kept falling into our laps. Had it not been for that, we would be doing the walk of shame with every other outlet that fell for this story.
Thing is, everyone in sports media is dirtied by this.
We need to check our “good story bias” at the door. Instead of looking only for signs that something is a good story, we need to follow up on clues that it isn't. Conflict doesn't derail stories. It enriches them.
We have to go back to basics, too. Every journalist has heard the credo, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Now, we have to live by that. Check birth certificates and death notices. Call an extra source. Ask an uncomfortable question. Do another Google search.
Will we learn those lessons? The evidence isn't hopeful.
On Friday, ESPN reported a possible admission from the man who has been identified as the person behind the girlfriend hoax. Its main source — an unnamed woman who was identified as a church friend of the man.
Everyone in the sports media needs to make a commitment to be better. This hoax hasn't just hurt the reputation of Grantland and The Sporting News and ESPN anyone else who told the story. It has hurts the reputation of the entire sports media.
We've already processed this part of the story — we screwed up, and we must do better.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.