NORTHWESTERN COMMAND – What if Manti Te’o had won the Heisman? Think about it.
I have no idea what Te’o knew or didn’t know regarding his girlfriend that didn’t exist. I have no idea if he played a role in the hoax or not. I do know he was not worthy of the Heisman Trophy. That’s what this post is mostly about.
What I do know is that the Te’o personal narrative of this fall – his supposed perseverance over off-the-field hardship that included his fake girlfriend’s death – influenced many Heisman voters. And he nearly won the award, finishing second to Johnny Manziel.
There were many voters, and some national writers, who felt Te’o and his story transcended the sport. And, yes, Notre Dame’s brand and undefeated season helped his candidacy as well (which is what I call the Derek Jeter effect: the lazy best-player-on- best-team MVP voting).
Here’s the problem: the Heisman is supposed to award “football excellence.” This is the Football Hallmark Award. It’s not the pretty-good-footballer-who-doubles-as-a-great-guy trophy.
Te’o didn’t finish in the top 50 nationally in tackles for loss or total tackles. The lone area where he stood out, from a production standpoint, were his seven interceptions. He was not the best defender in college football – that would be Jadeveon Clowney – and he might not even have been the best defender on the Notre Dame defense. That he was the not best defender in the country was verified by his performance against Alabama.
Voters are supposed to be objective. The problem is many voters are in the media, and the media loves good stories. That leads to warping objectivity to subjectivity.
We want to believe. We want a good story. That’s why, I imagine, writers from Sports Illustrated and ESPN didn’t do enough to find out if Te’o's girlfriend really existed. It’s why so many voted for him.
When journalists bring in off-the-field factors into their vote it can influence their vote in a negative way. We drift away from truth.
The media didn’t like Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams’ brash, taciturn manner toward them so they punished him in 1942, giving Joe Gordon AL MVP honors (.900 OPS) over Williams, who put up an astounding 1.147 OPS. It wouldn’t be the only time Williams was robbed of an MVP for the off-the-field matters.
There are countless other examples of subjectivity in voting, influences off-the-field determining an award supposed to be based on on-the-field performance.
Another problem with using off-the-field criteria is it is not as clear as the evidence we see on the field. Remember, Tiger Woods was once regarded as a golden boy, Buick spokesperson, who could do no wrong.
This subjectivity in voting – done in large part by journalists – leads me into a problem we’re facing more in more in journalism: subjectivity at large. From fan-based Web sites to not letting the facts stand in the way of a good story.
All journalists love telling a good story, but sports coverage and presentation have become reliant on it. A game can’t just be a series of pre-prepared tactics and random interventions of chance. These days, it needs to be a clash of iconic personalities, the heroes of our modern mythology playing out their epic storylines one installment at a time.
In the case of Manti Te’o, the quest for a storyline appears to have clouded the judgment of otherwise sensible journalists. And Notre Dame helped fuel the story, likely hoping that it would make Te’o a more compelling case for a Heisman.
Will we develop a more discerning eye in the wake of Te’o and his faux girlfriend? I hope so.
The compelling narrative almost lifted Te’o to Heisman trophy. It’s a reminder to journalists and to the public at large, if a story seems to good to be true, it’s wise to be skeptical.
It’s a reminder to voters to base votes on performance and not emotion.
I’m glad I did not cast a vote for Te’o.
CAPTIONATING THE CHICK-FIL-A BOWL AND DUKE