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Glenn Halbrooks

Should Sports Reporters Share the Blame in the Manti Te'o Girlfriend Hoax?

By January 21, 2013

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Everyone in media is still awaiting details that might make make sense of the Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax, the first major sports scandal of the year. But already, some media observers are pointing fingers at sports reporters for failing to ask the questions that might have exposed this hoax sooner.

A photo Notre Dame football linebacker Monti Te'o
Sports reporters are under fire for not uncovering the girlfriend hoax involving Notre Dame linebacker Monti Te'o.
Photo © Getty Images
In case you don't know the back story, Manti Te'o is a star Notre Dame linebacker who finished second in the race for the 2012 Heisman Trophy. Throughout the season, he captivated fans by speaking of his girlfriend, who survived a car crash only to die of leukemia on the same day as his grandmother's death.

That personal and tragic story helped win over fans who wanted to see Te'o and his Notre Dame team take home the BCS National Championship. Except that Deadspin.com has reported that his girlfriend never existed, raising questions about whether Te'o was a victim or a participant in this hoax that fooled a nation and hundreds of unquestioning sports reporters.

Critics are blasting sports media for not asking basic reporter questions or checking out the facts about this alleged girlfriend and her death. Such questions might have revealed sooner that no one could find her obituary or details of her car crash.

In defending himself against accusations that he was part of this scheme, Te'o admitted that his long relationship never included any face-to-face contact. In an off-camera interview with ESPN, he detailed how he thought he was duped into believing he had met someone special solely through online conversations and phone chats.

The ESPN reporter says Te'o sounded convincing. But will sports reporters as a whole get off so easily?

Some say sports reporters lack the skills to ask the tough questions that are expected of other journalists. It's said that they fawn over sports celebrities and their reporting is limited to simply repeating what they're told at carefully orchestrated news conferences.

In this situation, Te'o is still in college football. Most universities are relentless in protecting their players, who are also students enrolled in school. A sports reporter doesn't have the same access as a political reporter waiting for the governor to step out of his office to start peppering him with questions.

Every reporter takes some information as being the truth. You may learn in a college journalism class that every fact must have two sources to verify its accuracy. That's important when breaking a story like Watergate, but largely unworkable in day-to-day reporting. A reporter knows when to check facts for legal or ethical reasons, but hearing a story about a football player's sick and dying girlfriend woudn't raise those red flags.

Sports reporters have likely learned from this scandal. When a player isn't ever seen with his loving girlfriend and her obituary is never found, maybe there's a bigger story under the surface.

In the meantime, in the year's other sports "scandal" -- the comments ESPN's Brent Musburger made about the beauty of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron's girlfriend during the BCS National Championship game that Notre Dame lost -- should sports reporters demand proof that the young lady in the stands was in fact McCarron's girlfriend?

Do you think sports reporters share the blame in the Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax?

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