Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Over at my other sportswriting site, CollegeSpun, I wrote an article about the impact the dead girlfriend story had on how Manti Te'o was portrayed in the media and his campaign for the Heisman, referencing several opinion columns where sportswriters said Te'o should win the Heisman because it would signify the return of moral righteousness to a sport that lacked it. I wrote that the fact the hoax is making people rethink Te'o as a Heisman candidate and as the most decorated college football player ever shows how much the sob story had overshadowed the actual athleticism:
...if the Deadspin story makes you reconsider your Heisman vote, you shouldn’t be making a vote at all. This hoax doesn’t change anything about Te’o’s stats or his talents as a linebacker. The backlash to it, on the other hand, proves that some of those award votes that made Te’o the most decorated player in college football history were not for football reasons. They voted for him because Te’o winning those awards would make the best headline: Te’o Perseveres After Death of Loved Ones To Win Heisman!
Another good article about this matter was written by SB Nation's Michael Bird, who suggested that sports fans should ignore these stories about college superstars that are merely tools to fuel award campaigns and rely on access to be created. Let sports be sports, and stop feeding us this superfluous fluff pieces about things that don't directly impact the final score.
We just should not care about off-the-field stories anymore, because we have enough examples to know that we should not trust them, and we cannot have confidence that the people who bring us those stories will do the hard, skeptical legwork to ensure that they are not part of a scam.
It's cool to mock Tom Rinaldi's pieces for ESPN as being treacly and emotionally manipulative, but they're worse than that. They are the best examples of stories that we believe at our own peril, stories that lead us astray from what matters as a fan, which is what happens on the field (or off the field that directly impacts wins and losses, i.e. recruiting, coaching hires, NCAA investigations, etc.)
In short, the past year should lead college football fans to heed a simple lesson: focus on verifiable information....Everything else is just noise.
Is it a cynical way to go through sports? Yes, but that is how fans will and should respond when the mainstream media commits such a complete journalistic failure as part of their pursuit of a saccharine feel-good story. It should also serves as a remainder to us Trojans to separate the on-the-field achievements of our own players from the stuff off it. If Matt Barkley had fulfilled the Heisman hype, you can bet that every college football writer in the nation would have picked up on the trip he and his teammates took to Haiti, along with the other stuff that he's done. And while those are all good qualities, they don't have anything to do with what the Heisman is about: the best player in college football.
I have heard people invoke the Heisman trust's mission statement about rewarding the player that demonstrates the "pursuit of excellence with integrity." But to me, that still doesn't mean that being a nice guy off the field should be criteria for the award. We can all see the stuff they do on the field. We need people with access to tell us about this extra stuff that supposedly should factor in as well.
In fact, using such acts of charity as selling points to win a football award sort of takes the luster off the acts themselves, don't you think? Let charity be charity and let sport be sport.