The sound of heroes (and journalists) falling hard

For sports journalists, or anyone who likes a good story, Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o seemed like gifts from the narrative gods.

Armstrong was the tenacious Texan who overcame cancer and took the sport of cycling by storm. For Americans who had never paid attention to the Tour de France, he made it mainstream by beating the Europeans at their own game and claiming a record seven titles, becoming a Nike-fueled icon along the way.

Though steroid rumors surrounded Armstrong for much of his career, including allegations from former teammates, it was easier (and more romantic) for sportswriters to embrace the legend and believe his rebuttals than actually expose the truth.

Now that Armstrong is backpedaling, his heroic stature lies in ruins. So do all those breathless media tales about how hard work and a positive attitude were enough to take him to the height of competitive cycling against all odds.

The story surrounding Manti Te’o was equally inspirational, helping transform him from a standout Notre Dame linebacker to a serious Heisman hopeful and a darling of America media. His tale of finding greatness through grief was the sort of human saga that writers crave, editors demand and readers relish.

Of course, no one bothered to confirm that it was actually true.

We were told that Te’o lost his grandmother and girlfriend over a span of 24 harrowing hours in September, with his girlfriend (a Stanford student named Lennay Kekua) surviving a near-fatal car accident but succumbing to leukemia after a prolonged hospital stay.

The Notre Dame linebacker did numerous interviews in which he told of helping Lennay get to sleep every night by talking to her over the phone, and how his performance in a key victory over Michigan State was a tribute to his lost loved ones and what they had meant to his life.

In the blink of an eye Wednesday, just minutes after the website Deadspin posted a story exposing the real truth, Te’o’s inspirational story denigrated into one of the most tangled and notorious deceits in sports history.

As it turned out, his girlfriend was a product of cyberspace, an elaborate hoax involving social media and willing accomplices to somehow maintain the narrative that was popping up in major publications and media outlets across the country.

It seems implausible that Te’o was among those duped, since he spoke of knowing his girlfriend’s family, and his father provided reporters with background on their relationship. Did he get caught up in something and not know how to let go, or was he willingly using the press all along to further his agenda and enhance his image?

A better question is this: How the hell did this happen? How did this many reporters fall short, failing to check on the validity of Te’o’s claims and find out more about this mysterious woman who briefly entered his life and made such a mark?

As someone who has written plenty of profiles that involved weighty issues such as love and death, I can you that it’s tempting to believe in stirring storylines. You find yourself wondering why someone would lie about such things and embracing that initial version of events.

Typically, though, you seek to broaden the narrative by seeking more sources, adding depth and color to the story along the way, and that’s usually where inconsistencies start to show.

When reporters went to Te’o’s father and he not only backed up the story of the dead girlfriend but added texture to the relationship, one can see how any skepticism gave way to full-steam-ahead storytelling.

Perhaps the biggest journalistic culprit in this whole mess is Pete Thamel, a former New York Times college football writer who now works for Sports Illustrated. It was his cover profile of Te’o in late September that brought national scope to the story, and many subsequent articles fed off that narrative and helped fuel the deception.

To write a major national profile and not further explore the girlfriend’s background (which would have made it clear that she didn’t have any) is an egregious journalistic error that Thamel is certainly paying for as we speak.

But there were numerous opportunities for media outlets to find out more about this woman, and nobody did until Deadspin exposed the lies. Does this signal a declining age in journalism, in which less staffing and resources combined with the need for more immediacy leads to sacrifices in standards?

Perhaps it does, but the stories and myth-making behind Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o arose from unique circumstances.

Armstrong was quick to point out how he had never failed a drug test (which was a lie), threatening to sue those who claimed otherwise. Sorting through the twisted web of steroid use in the world of cycling for actual facts could be intimidating, so most reporters chose to let Lance control the story.

Inexcusable, yes, but not difficult to understand.

As for Te’o, his shocking story brings fresh light to the tracking of fake online personas and how people can be duped. The very notion that a Heisman Trophy candidate and top NFL prospect would wax poetically about a dead girlfriend who never existed (whether he knew it or not) shows how the digital age and its social tentacles have changed the way we live.

Most of all, though, I think we as journalists or sports fans or human beings want to believe stories like these. We want to feel that there are real heroes in our midst who feel profound pain but rise above their struggles to inspire us.

Such people do still exist, but we sometimes must look beyond the obvious places (sports, politics, entertainment) to find them. And, sadly enough, we need to look at their sagas and successes with a more cynical eye, being ever-vigilant in a heartless age that we don’t get fooled again.