Manti Te’o, fake girlfriends and confirmation bias

Way back in my guilt file is a story I wanted to highlight from CNN about Manti Te’o, Notre Dame’s star linebacker. The story is a detailed account of the role religion plays in his life and I found it fascinating. Te’o is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is from Hawaii. My husband was raised Mormon and is from Hawaii, so I’d been following Te’o’s story. He’d been a leader in the top-ranked Notre Dame team that went on to the National Championship game. A sample from that story:

Graduating from Punahou High School in Hawaii, Te’o had his choice of the best football programs in the country. His Mormon faith was a serious factor in the decision-making process, said his former high school coach, Kale Ane.

“A lot of that weighed on him,” Ane, who coached Te’o for three years, told CNN.  “The final weight was getting his message out on a broader scale.  A Mormon at a Catholic school was a good way to say, ‘You can keep your faith no matter where you go.’ “

Team chaplain Father Paul Doyle is interviewed:

“Manti is a very religious guy. He seeks out his Mormon congregation and attends off-campus faithfully,” Doyle said.

Te’o has been a member of the local Notre Dame Ward the Mormons’ rough equivalent of a Catholic parish in Mishawaka, Indiana, for four years, according to ward Bishop Jim Carrier.  The five counties in and around South Bend, Indiana, are home to about 2,000 Latter-day Saints, Carrier said.

A common practice in the LDS Church, which has no professional clergy, is having members give testimonies during Sunday worship services.

“I asked (Te’o) to talk about what influenced him to come to Notre Dame and how he used prayer in prompting him to make that decision,” Carrier said.

Carrier said Te’o spoke about leaning toward attending the University of Southern California. But as he prayed about his decision, coaches from Notre Dame called to check in. “He said he just felt an overwhelming feeling it was where he needed to go,” Carrier said. “He said, ‘It was an answer to prayer for me.'”

The story discusses whether Te’o plans to serve on a two-year mission and how other football players handled that.

What turned out to be the most interesting part of the story, as you may have heard today, was inserted pretty late in the report:

Te’o has been vocal about the role his faith plays in his life and how he leaned on it earlier this year after both his grandmother and girlfriend died in the span of less than two days during football season.  His girlfriend died after battling leukemia.  Te’o stayed with the team throughout the ordeal, playing one of the best games of his career the following Saturday.

Turns out that there may not have been a girlfriend, that she didn’t have leukemia, and didn’t die.

Notre Dame officials have said that Te’o was the victim of a hoax. (CNN updated its report immediately.)

It’s a very weird story and details are still coming out. Until or unless the entire story comes out, it’s hard to know where to place criticism precisely. So how has the media coverage been? I actually think the current stories out there are doing a fine job of neither ignoring nor over-emphasizing the religion angle here. But I do think there is something to think about with regard to how this story has been handled previously.

I’m throwing no stones here because while I tend to be extremely skeptical, unless I was writing a story about the death of the girlfriend or heavily focused on that, I would have trusted the ESPN and other reports that repeated Te’o’s claim. So most of the media coverage of the death claim was repeating claims made by fairly reliable sources. However …

Does this sad story not illustrate the importance of the old maxim about checking out even your mother’s claims about loving you?

Slate‘s Josh Levin looks at this issue in his “The Fake Girlfriend Experience.” He says sports writers are way too interested in hero/villain story lines:

So why didn’t Thamel and his cohorts at ESPN and elsewhere figure out they were all on a Catfish-ing exhibition? Because they fell victim to confirmation bias. Even before his great 2012 season, Te’o’s golden-as-the-dome image had been cemented. He was a humble leader, a Boy Scout, a religious fellow who put family first, a player who returned to Notre Dame for his senior season because, in the words of his father, “he was led there to do something.”

Manti Te’o was a sports hero, and his standout play this year demanded the details to flesh out that storyline. There’s a journalistic cliché: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. For sports hagiographers, it’s more like: If he makes a lot of tackles, don’t you dare check anything. Stardom demands that feature writers color in the lines with off-field greatness. And Te’o’s character, it seemed, was unimpeachable. After all, there had been all these stories about how humble and religious he was, and how he’d been led to Notre Dame to do something.

There must be sports villains to stand alongside the heroes, of course. That brings us to Pete Thamel’s other recent college football opus, and the other kind of confirmation bias. In the Oct. 22 issue of SI, Thamel and Thayer Evans wrote a cover story on Tyrann Mathieu called “Trials of the Honey Badger.” Mathieu, a 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist, was kicked off the LSU football team prior to the 2012 season, reportedly because he smoked marijuana. For the SI piece, Thamel and Evans went to Louisiana and performed the kind of dogged shoe-leather journalism that nobody bothered to do when reporting on Manti Te’o, humble Boy Scout. Their prize finding: Mathieu’s face appeared on a nightclub flyer, which might possibly constitute an NCAA violation.

I think this is true. I actually don’t think this is limited to sports heroes and villains, of course. Reporters on all beats have preferences that blind them. We certainly see much harder-hitting exposes of some individuals than others. You may have noticed the media treats even presidents differently.

The best cure for this is to exercise your skeptical muscles. I hope that doesn’t make me sound too cynical, but it’s a reporter’s job to check out all claims, whether made my presidents, linebackers, mothers or others.

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  • One note. I’m pretty sure its the South Bend Ward, not the Notre Dame Ward.

  • I think there’s another intersection of Notre Dame’s football, media coverage, and a dead girl that needs to be considered in contrast to this. Next to all of the tears and poignancy that imbued the hagiographic tales of Manti Teo this year, we can place Notre Dame’s callous disregard for the women its football players sexually assault. When a few years ago, a St. Mary’s College student named Elizabeth Seeberg reported such an assault, the university ignored it. Only two weeks later, when she was found dead of an overdose of sleeping pills, did the school manage to investigate. And of course, with the time elapsed and the victim dead, there was little they could prove, and her accused attacker remained the whole time cleared to play on the field.

    So many tears were shed for the fictitious death of a made-up girlfriend. So few were shed, and so little has changed, after the real death of a girl that Notre Dame’s football program victimized.

    Notre Dame has rushed to offer every service and every investigatory power it can to Manti Teo’s family, to avenge this cruel hoax (if it really was a hoax and not the deluded fantasies of a football player worshipped as a god). Where was that speed, that mission, that loving care for Elizabeth Seeberg?

    • mollie

      I agree. The amount of ink spilled over a fictitious girl’s death versus Seeberg’s is telling.

  • Thinkling

    More a social media than journalism point, Twitter last night was a petri dish of confirmation bias. When following the trends during and after ND’s athletic director’s press conference, it was amazing how people saw vastly different things in the same event. Either “what a lying sack of $h!+” or foaming at the mouth to go after the pranksters. Nuance and measuredness were scarce.

    Re the Seeburg case, I suspect part of the reason for the vacuum is due to the fact that when actually delving into what happened, there just was not a lot of there there, at least not nearly as much as the early stories would suggest. (I have one degree of separation from folks who investigated the case, suffice it to say there is a LOT that is not publicly available, for better or worse). I speculate local coverage petered out and never achieved wider critical mass, except in conspiratorial type outlets.

    I recognize I could come across as insensitive, so to combat that let me say that I am surprised (and somewhat disheartened) that there is not more mainstream chatter about the Steubenville OH assault case.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Thinkling, I’m actually shocked that there was so MUCH MSM coverage of that rape. The NYT, WaPo, Boston Globe, AP sent it out all over the place, and even The Guardian picked it up (huh?). I’m a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville and so are my two daughters. The town itself is an ugly place with not much going for it at all, other than FUS. Crime is rampant there; it has been ever since it was known as “Little Chicago” and the Mafia controlled the town. When VP Biden visited last May, my daughter was there and when she saw the police escort going by, her first thought was, “Is there a drug raid going on somewhere?” So why an episode of a couple of high school football players raping a girl who’s passed out drunk in a town known for police corruption and a high crime rate deserves coverage beyond the local media outlets is beyond me.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    When the story on Teo’s church attendance had first hand statements from both the head of his local Momron congregation, AND the Catholic chaplain who supports the team on the road, that is evidence of ordinary reliability. A Mormon attends three hours of church every Sunday: a worship service that includes the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and listening to (and giving) sermons by members of the congregation; a sunday school lesson out of the scriptures; and for adult men, a priesthood meeting where they organize for service to the church and community, and have another religious lesson oriented toward their responsibilities for service. If the guy’s bishop says he came to church faithfully for four years, I would accept that unless you have pretty convincing first hand evidence to the contrary, and an explanation for why the bishop would give you inaccurate information. After all, the bishop is an unpaid volunteer who supports his family through a career that typically has nothing to do with his church service (he could be a faculty member at Notre Dame, or a car dealer, or a doctor), and has no financial incentive to misrepresent Teo’s behavior.

    I think it would be pretty simple to check out the death of his grandmother. That was REAL, and would have a real impact on the emotions of a young man, regardless of the reality of the girlfriend.

    Is it possible that someone misrepresented themselves online in order to establish a false relationship with Teo? People do things like that all the time, for all sorts of reasons. Some are sexual predators, some want to hurt the person they are contacting. You will recall that the mother of a cheerleader created a false online friendship with another girl whom she perceived as competing with her daughter, just in order to harm her emotionally; the targeted girl committed suicide. There are public service announcements on radio all the time warning kids about fake “friends” on the internet.

    And what would Teo get exactly from collaborating in a “fake girlfriend” hoax? There is no evidence that he had a REAL girlfriend there at Notre Dame, even though a football hero like him with good prospects to become a millionaire when he turned pro could easily find attractive women among the coeds. If he was carrying on a deception about a fake girlfriend, he was depriving himself of the ability to have a REAL girlfriend. What did he benefit in any way? The circumstances are resulting in harm to his reputation, which was very foreseeable. If he wanted to end a fake girlfriend relationship, all he had to do was say she walked away, and she had no duty to explain why. My son’s second wife turned on him suddenly less then five months into their marriage and has still never explained why.

    Frankly, I see no motive for Teo to create or collaborate in creating a fake girlfriend. On the other hand, the perversity required for someone to create an online friend in order to hurt him is out there in abundance. Lots of people resent success, and lots of people don’t like Polynesians, and lots of people don’t like Mormons. Maybe someone who wanted to go to Notre Dame to play on the football team blamed Teo for not being picked.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Some interesting religion content in this Sports Illustrated writer’s account of what went wrong in his reporting.

  • I wonder, if Te’o sticks to his story, if chastity will figure as one factor in how he was duped. I can’t help but see that issue lying just beneath a lot of the ridicule.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    The car crash and the terminal disease are fairly typical for Internet fake identities, especially if sympathy is ebbing or suspicion of a lie is growing. The next stage is to introduce grieving relatives, possibly a sibling or cousin, who will try to establish a new fake relationship.

  • This has been one of the most bizarre sports stories I’ve ever seen, mainly because ESPN and the sports media really seemed at a loss with it. While it’s never spoken, ESPN sells a culture of sex with its sports, and many ESPN personalities had no idea what to say about a guy who fell in love (supposedly) over the phone. This is of course lead deadspin and other non-ESPN outlets to speculate on Te’o’s sexuality, and whether or not he was gay. (If you read the original report on, it leads the reader to that interpretation.) I just saw as a naive guy from a small community who got taken advantage when he went far away to school. In my college experience at Concordia University Wisconsin, I wouldn’t have been shocked if such a naive person would have fallen for such a scheme. (Disappointed, but not shocked.