Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Consuming Manti Te'o

Manti Te'o
by Ben Howard

I’m not proud of myself. I think we should start there because I want you to know that I feel bad about what I did.

I mean, it wasn’t that bad. I didn’t punch anyone. Nor did I steal. Nor did I lie. I only tweeted. Or, more appropriately I re-tweeted.

Wednesday afternoon, broke the craziest sports news story of my adult life.

One of the running themes for the college football season involved the girlfriend of Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o. According to the narrative, Te’o’s girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had developed leukemia and passed away the same day as Te’o’s grandmother. At the request of Kekua, Te’o played against Michigan State on the day of her funeral. He played a great game, had two interceptions and led Notre Dame to victory. Eventually, Notre Dame would finish the regular season undefeated thanks largely to the play of Te’o and the moving story of Kekua would be told over and over and over again.

Here’s the rub: Lennay Kekua is not a real person. She did not die, because she never existed in the first place.

The story is bizarre and twisting and you can learn all about it by visiting whichever sports-based website you so desire. The story is not the point; it is merely the inciting event.

As this story gained traction, Twitter, as it is wont to do, lit up with jokes. Oh the jokes.

I like to laugh and I like making other people laugh, so I tweeted and re-tweeted joke after joke after joke in the immediate furor of the story’s punch-line tidal wave.

Interview with Jeremy Schaap of ESPN about Kekua hoax
Then I thought about it and I felt bad.

My first reaction to this story, the reaction I regret, was an act of consumption. It’s a reactive posture that I’m far too familiar with both from myself and from the culture at large.

It’s the posture through which we engage celebrity culture. We do not follow celebrities; we consume the narrative of their existence as it filters to us through media portrayal. For some this forms a symbiotic relationship. Who would Kim Kardashian be if there was not a willing populace to consume her brand of celebrity-self?

But for others, the consuming aspects of celebrity culture come as a side effect of simply doing work. This kind of celebrity certainly has its perks both financially, personally, and professionally, but it also comes with a deeply dehumanizing downside. This downside is on full display in the story of Te’o. What would be a deeply embarrassing and humiliating moment for a private person explodes exponentially when it is revealed about a public persona.

And that’s the key word: persona. Image. Symbol. It’s the key concept of the way in which we engage with celebrity culture in the age of unrivaled media access and connectivity. We do not respond to the humanity of the person, or even to their controlled portrayal of self, but instead we consume the perceived and presented image created by a systemized celebrity culture which maneuvers onward though no one in particular is at the wheel.

Lance Armstrong, 7-time Tour de France winner, cancer
survivor, recently admitting to cheating
Te’o was not presented to us as a person, or as a football player, but as something more. He was a narrative, a fairytale, and when the fairytale was dashed, when the narrative was a hoax and an illusion, we turned on him because the cabal of storytellers that served him to us for ratings and as a means to emotional (and inevitably financial) investment does not exist as a single corporeal entity.

The myth of Manti Te’o, just like the myth of Lance Armstrong before him, and Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and thousands of athletes, actors, musicians, and politicians before them, was not constructed by one man. The man, the object of the myth, was merely a piece of the construct, but he is the only one standing as the fiction crumbles to the ground.

I do not come here proposing a solution. I also do not intend to make you feel guilty. I simply posit these questions: What does it mean that we consume both during the construction and the deconstruction? What does it mean that we dehumanize someone by trying to make them a “human interest” story? What does it mean when we turn someone else’s pain into our enjoyment? 

And what do we do now?


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1 comment:

  1. It's crazy the amount of stories popping up that carry the same storyline as Armstrong and Te'o. There seems to be an issue in our culture when these things keep coming up. Personally, I believe it comes down to an issue of self image. With the outbreak of twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets, it almost gives us an outlet to be whoever we want to be. These outlets give us an opportunity to have a story worth living. Culture tells us that if we want to make it, get a foot in the door, or progress it to the next round of a talent show, you must have something that pulls others in. This leaves us looking at ourselves and saying, "I am boring, I have nothing interesting to show."
    Therefore, to T'eo, Armstrong, and anyone else out there trying to amp up who they truly are: I am sorry, and you are really really cool just being yourself.
    Be yourself, it is enough. That is the message our culture needs to shift into.

    Andrew Thetford