"Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea"

In the college football world, the made-up dead girlfriend of a superstar matters more than a real dead young woman. There's something a bit wrong about that.

This is eventually going to be a post about the strange case of Manti Te'o and his dead-girlfriend-who-never-existed. But to get to that tale, we need to start at the beginning. 

The phenomena of "college football" in the USA is weird on a whole number of levels. One is the sheer level of fanatacism (the original source, remember, for the term "fan") that it attracts. For instance, the University of Nebraska football team - universally and in-no-way-mockingly known by its nickname "the Cornhuskers", which is another odd thing about US college football - has sold out every one of its home games since 1962. That's more than 300 games in a row over 40 years, in a stadium that currently can hold more than 86,000 people. Even once you factor in that there probably isn't all that much else to do in Lincoln, Nebraska, it's still an impressive display of passionate support.

And just so we're clear, it's not just current students who get very, very excited about their institution's team. Alumni continue to remain devoted supporters long after their degree certificates have begun to fade on the wall. Even people with no real association to a particular University will have "their" college team that they follow. 

All of which is to say, the inter-collegiate football competitions (because there's a number of different ones) held in the US are about as far away from New Zealand's University games as it is possible to get. These are massive events that have become a part of general US culture.

This infiltration of college football into the general culture then has a couple of flow-on effects. The first is that for a lot of universities in the US, success in football (as well as other sports, basketball in particular) is their primary means of differentiation and identification in the general public's eye. Sure, this isn't true for all of them. If your degree is from Yale or Columbia, say, the average American will know what that means. But tell that same average American that you got a degree from (say) the University of Oregon and they won't respond; "oh, yeah - the University of Oregon is a world-class teaching and research university with nearly 300 comprehensive academic programs and more than 25 research centers and institutes, offering both breadth and depth in the liberal arts and sciences as well as professional programs."

No - they'll say; "oh, yeah - the Ducks had a pretty good season, didn't they?"

So for a lot of universities, there's a lot riding on the relative success of their football teams. Even more so when you come to the next consequence of massive public interest in the result of competitions between teams wearing university names and colours. Money.

College football is a business. It's a huge, multi-multi-million dollar business. All those fans wanting to watch their teams compete against each other are an incredibly valuable resource for TV companies wanting to sell eyeballs to advertisers. So those TV companies are prepared to pay a lot for the right to screen college football games. And all those fans wanting to display their alliegance to their team are a ready market for an overpriced, "officially authorised" T-shirt/sweatshirt/pair of socks/set of shot glasses/golf-bag/etc emblazoned with its name.

(True story ... I was in Phoenix last year, visiting the campus of Arizona State University, home to the "Sun Devils" (there's those nicknames again!). While on campus, I called past the university's "bookstore". This consisted of an area at the back that held assigned texts for classes (and that apparently only gets opened up for a couple of weeks at the start of semester), along with a couple of racks of general books such as you might see at an airport Paper Plus. The majority of the "bookstore" space was then devoted to merchandise of every description bearing the "Sun Devil" name and logo. Seriously - it was like a sports-mascot version of this Portlandia sketch.)

Of course, there's one group that doesn't get to share in all the wealth that a successful football programme generates. It's not the University - its coffers get a nice boost (especially in an environment where state funding for higher education is decreasing). It's not the team coaches - the highest paid college football coach is the University of Alabama's Nick Saban, who gets a shade under US$5.5 million. (In comparison, the University of Alabama's President (equivalent to a Vice-Chancellor in New Zealand) gets a salary of US$625,000.) No, it's the players who actually go out and provide the spectacle that everyone else gets rich off. As "student athletes", the rules of the NCAA (which govern college football) prevent them from making any money at all from their on-field exploits. (For a discussion of how unfair this practice is, read this. For South Park's take on it, see this.)

So why do players do it? Well, there's the pride and on-campus prestige of being a part of the thing that their University bases much of its identity on. And the universities do provide lots of players with scholarships to cover their tuition and living expenses, meaning that some of them get to go to a college they otherwise couldn't afford to (or, wouldn't meet the scholastic requirements to get in to). So at the end of their time on the football team, they will emerge with a degree - even if it is in "Communication Studies" and their transcript consists mainly of C's.

But the real reason college football players spend 4-5 years training and playing 40-50 hours a week for no money is because it is virtually the only route into the professional world of the NFL. Aside from the odd Australian AFL player hired as a punter or the like, almost every NFL player serves his apprenticeship on a college team. Therefore, if you want to have any shot at earning the big salaries that the NFL provides, first you must prove yourself at the college level.

Let's set aside the overall weirdness of this symbiosis between professional sports and inter-University sporting fixtures and focus on the effect of structuring college football in this way. On many campuses - certainly, on the campuses of those Universities that play in the NCAA Division 1 - you've got an institution (the football team) that serves as the University's primary identifier in the public eye, that brings in tens-of-millions of dollars in revenue, that is headed by an individual whose skills are valued more highly than anyone else at the University, and that is made up of a very tight-knit group of young men who are highly admired but not really a part of the general student body (in that they spend most of their time together training) and view their time at the University primarily as a stepping-stone to the fame and fortune of professional sports. 

Gosh - what could go wrong?

Well, last year showed us the very worst that could possibly happen, when it was revealed that the Pennyslvania State football coach and three other senior University officials deliberately covered up sexual abuse claims against Jerry Sandusky, a member of the team's coaching staff. This cover up then allowed Sandusky to continue abusing young boys (including in the showers of the Penn State team's locker-room) - a consequence that apparently was preferable to any risk that the good name of the football programme could be tarnished. As this comment on the scandal points out:

We now know that [those who covered up the sexual abuse] were bad people. But football helped make them that way. None of them started their careers so hungry for wealth and power that they could have imagined covering up such horrific crimes, all to protect some idea of what Penn State football was supposed to be. But they did, and that needs to be remembered for a long, long time.

(The saga is not yet over - the three university administrators implicated in the cover-up (including the University's president) have yet to face trial on perjury, obstruction of justice, child endangerment, conspiracy and failure to report child abuse charges.)

If the Penn State scandal was a one-off, that would be one thing. But - and now we're finally getting to the Manti Te'o story - it isn't.

Taken by itself, Te'o's tale is more of the head-scratching "wtf?" variety than the sickening abdication of moral sentiment that Penn State represents. Te'o played for the University of Notre Dame (pronounced not like the French cathedral, but "Noter Daame", as God intended). Notre Dame's football team - the in-no-way-stereotyped "Fighting Irish" - has what the American's like to call "a rich and storied history". It's also won the most national titles of all college football teams, albeit that the concept of a "national title" is a bit tricky to apply in a sport that has a bunch of different competitions running simultaneously.

Of late, however, the Fighting Irish have struggled a bit. They haven't won a national title since 1988, and in the 2000's they lost a record 9 post-season "bowl" games in a row. So for all its past glories, Notre Dame's football programme was in danger of becoming a bit second tier.

This season, however, looked set to turn that all round. Notre Dame's team went 12-0 in its regular season. That record then earned it an invitation to the "BCS National Championship Game" - in other words, it was regarded as being one of the two best teams in the country, and so got the chance to play-off against the University of Alabama's "Crimson Tide" for the title of National Champion. And at the heart of the Fighting Irish's golden year was Manti Te'o - a linebacker (that is, defensive player) who specialised in stopping the other team's running back from gaining ground, whilst also threatening to intercept attempted passes by their quarterback.

What made Manti Te'o stand out even more was that not only was he a very good player on a high profile team that was winning all its games, but he had a tear-jerking story to tell. You see, on the same day early on in the season, Manti Te'o lost both his grandmother and his girlfriend to cancer. As his girlfriend slipped towards her end, she would respond to Te'o's voice and smile as he sang the Fighting Irish's team song to her. And her last words to him before she died were "I love you" ... three days after which, Te'o starred in an upset Notre Dame victory over divisional rivals Michigan State (because she had told him that she wanted him to keep on playing for her).

Wow. Just, wow. Shades of Bob Blair coming out to bat in Johannesburg. This uplifting tale of overcoming adversity and staying focused on the team's needs even as your personal feelings are in a mess caused Notre Dame's athletic director to rhapsodise that Te'o "may be the perfect Notre Dame football player. As good as they come on the field. As good as they come off the field. He is what we look for in student athletes." Sports Illustrated - the bible of US sports - seemed to agree; it promoted Teo's story (and the team he played for) on its front cover. And as Notre Dame's unbeaten run continued, Te'o's feats (along with his backstory) began to lead to a buzz that he could win the Heisman trophy for the most outstanding player in collegiate football.

Look out, world! Notre Dame's back!!

And then, as they say, it all went horribly wrong.

First of all, Te'o didn't win the Heisman - he came second to Texas A&M's quarterback Johnny Manziel. That in itself isn't so very strange; it's quite hard for a defensive player to make the kind of spectacular plays needed to win recognition, which is why the award is almost always won by running backs or quarterbacks. Then the Crimson Tide rolled all over Notre Dame in the BCS championship game ... before coming back and rolling all over them again the next half to complete an absolute shellacking. And in that game, Te'o's future NFL stocks took a bit of a hit as he proved largely ineffective in the face of a bigger, stronger offence than he had faced all year.

All that, however, was but a curtain raiser for the real shock, which came in the form of an article on deadspin.com revealing that Te'o's supposedly dead girlfriend had never existed. Not that he had exaggerated his relationship with her, or fudged issues around it. Rather, there had never been any such person, full stop. Te'o's only contact with "her", it turned out, was by way of phone and social media. And the supposed images of "her" came from the facebook account of some still living woman who claimed not to know Manti Te'o from Adam.

Exactly what has happened here is the subject of ongoing speculation and frenzied investigation by the US media. The story Notre Dame and Te'o are telling is that he was the innocent victim of an on-line hoax (there's even a term for it - "catfishing", after this movie) perpetuated by persons unnamed for purposes as yet unknown. So, says them, Te'o's story is essentially unchanged - he truly believed this "girlfriend" (who he just had never actually met physically) had died, yet found the strength to play on anyway. 

However, drawing on a number of inconsistencies in the stories about his "girlfriend" that Te'o has told over time, as well as sheer incredulity that he could have been innocently sucked in for so long, there also are suggestions that Te'o was in on the hoax. Why would he do so? Well, 2012 was Te'o's last season of college football, and he will be drafted into the NFL this year. If he happened to win the Heisman, bouyed by his story of overcoming the odds, then his prospective value could be expected to increase. Furthermore, now his enforced amatuer college years are behind him, he's free to start making real money from commercial endorsements. And what better tale to sell to interested companies than that one that combines tragic true love and football?

Now, obviously I have no idea which account is the right one. Maybe we'll never know. But here's where I want to try and tie this post together. Because what does college football have to do with the Manti Te'o tale?

Superficially, not all that much. Sure, Te'o might not have been targetted by hoaxers if he wasn't a high-profile player on a high-profile team. But that's a problem of fame, not football. And even if the truth is uglier and Te'o took part in the hoax to boost his image and achieve higher rewards upon turning pro, that's not really college football's fault either. You only need to look at what Lance Armstrong did in the world of cycling, or what Louis Suarez does repeatedly on the (real) football field, to see that the temptation to lie to achieve greater rewards is pretty universal across all sports.

Instead, the indictment of college football lies in a comparison between Notre Dame's treatment of a fake dead girl with that of a real one - Lizzy Seeberg. You probably haven't heard of her, but she was a 19-year-old Notre Dame student who committed suicide back in 2010 after accusing a member of the school's football team of sexually assaulting her.

Not for Lizzy Seeberg were the tears that Notre Dame's athletic director - the same one who called Te'o "the perfect Notre Dame football player" above - reportedly has shed over the fact Te'o had suffered this cruel hoax. Nor did the University immediately hire a private investigation firm to dig into the facts behind Lizzy Seeberg's allegation, as it has with the Te'o hoax.

No, in Lizzie Seeberg's case the Notre Dame campus police had not even got around to interviewing her alleged assailant before she killed herself - 10 days after the alleged attack. During which time she had received a series of texts from a friend of the player: “Don’t do anything you would regret,” one of them said. “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.”

Then, six months after her death — and when the story had become national news — Notre Dame finally did get around to convening a closed-door disciplinary hearing. The accused player told it that until he actually met with police, he had no idea why they wanted to speak to him ... even though his buddy who’d warned Lizzy not to mess with Notre Dame football had spoken to investigators 13 days earlier. The hearing found him “not responsible,” and never sat out a game.

As happened in the case of another woman who later that year reported being raped by another Fighting Irish team member, but then refused to pursue her complaint after seeing what happened to Lizzie Seeberg. Her alleged attacker stayed on the team, too.

So that's the real problem with college football. It's so important that when one of its stars tells the world that the love of his life has just died of cancer, no-one thinks to go behind that story to actually check whether or not it is true. The story is simply too good not to be true. And when that story is revealed as a lie, the star is defended because the feelings inspired by the fake story are real. Therefore, we should feel doubly bad for him - first that he suffered through what he thought was a loved one's death, and then that he found out he had been cruelly hoaxed.

But when a real woman claims to suffer hurt at the hands of a member of the football programme - well, messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea. And that's something that will do no-one any good.