Many journalists engaged in a period of self reflection after it was discovered that the stories they had written regarding the death of Manti Te’o's girlfriend were false. Lennay Kekua never existed. She appears to have been the invention of an infatuated hoaxster.
While the media has rightfully mourned the lack of basic fact-checking, we should also start looking at the way sports reporters build up athletes.
After all, why was Manti Te’o considered heroic for talking to a sick girlfriend on the phone? Even without fact-checking, we knew he had never visited her in the hospital, even during his summer break. Nobody bothered to ask if he had been tested as a potential bone marrow donor when he believed his girlfriend had been diagnosed with leukemia.
If Te’o had been an average college student, his long phone conversations may have been considered admirable, but they wouldn’t have been built up to something almost legendary.
In fact, given the lack of any meaningful action on Te’o's part, it’s possible that Te’o's response would have been considered expected, or perhaps even underwhelming given what was believed to be the scope of Kekua’s challenges.
Thursday and Friday, Dr. Phil will interview the man who invented Lennay Kekua, and the attention paid to this story will finally die down.
The problem of a myth-making media, however, will still be around.
Remember when Alex Rodriguez was considered the noble baseball player who would help the sport emerge from the shadow of Barry Bonds’ steroid use? Now A-Rod is being linked to the use of performance enhancers for a second time. An ESPN analyst has recently called him the Lindsay Lohan of MLB.
How did Lance Armstrong go from strong-minded cancer survivor to arrogant, PED-abusing bully?
And many football fans are familiar with Ray Lewis’ reputation as the spiritual leader of the Ravens, while his history of off-field incidents is glossed over, or ignored completely.
In truth, Rodriguez, Armstrong and Lewis have always had vices to go with their virtues. Could a more nuanced portrait of these individuals have sold as many papers as well as keeping sports fans from putting these athletes on a pedestal?
Does confusing feats of athletic greatness with moral greatness diminish the real heroes that indeed exist?
And will the media’s focus on fact-checking cause them to miss the fact that the issue is something even greater?