The wheel of weird spins faster and faster

The wheel of weird spins faster and faster
January 17, 2013, 8:15 am
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Everything else can be trumped, and at an increasingly fast rate of speed. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

Whatever Manti Te’o’s level of culpability in the story of The Girlfriend Who Wasn’t There, this much is certain.

There is nothing whatsoever that a famous person can do to embarrass him- or herself in America that is so bad that it can’t be outdone by some other famous person inside a week. Nothing so criminal, nothing so idiotic, nothing so jaw-slackening. Nothing.

Okay. There is one thing. The Jerry Sandusky child abuse story is so beyond the pale of even the most depraved society that it must be exempted for purposes of our little chat.

But everything else can be trumped, and is at an increasingly fast rate of speed. Remember Suzy Favor Hamilton, the Olympic runner who became a Las Vegas call girl? No, you don’t, and that happened less than four weeks ago.

Remember Lance Armstrong? Yes, but it isn’t the first thing in your head right now. Remember Lance Armstrong’s confession to Oprah Winfrey? No. It got obliterated by Jack Swarbrick’s presser from Notre Dame Wednesday night.

The Te’o story in fact is remarkable because of its brazenness and the swiftness of the reaction. The winds of Neptune can only do it justice. Even the most benign explanation has Te’o playing along in a clear fraud (not in the legal sense) for a very long time. Whether he instigated it, agreed with it or just played along our embarrassment, he’s in it up to his eyelids.

Second, Notre Dame is in it by virtue of Swarbrick’s press conference, which ignored the inconsistencies in the story to defend its guy, a triumph of defend-the-brand-and-all-who-wear-it that college sports does better than nearly anyone.

Third, though no real harm was actually done in a criminal sense (as was apparently perpetrated in the Armstrong case), it touched America’s sense of anger in being taken. Nothing outrages of the body politic quite like being played by someone who embellishes or fabricates a tale of moral and ethical rectitude.

It is, at best, an ambitious lie, a meta version of the one Kevin Hart, the Nevada high school football player, engaged in when he faked his recruitment to Cal in 2008.

It is at worst an act of misdirection the motive for which is known only to Te’o and his fellow misdirectees.

And it certainly caused journalism’s collective shorts to ride up one more time, because a lot of people took the Te’o dead girlfriend story hook, line, sinker and boat – rather like the Armstrong story pulled people in.

The next athlete with a tearjerker story is more likely to keep it to him- or herself if only to keep the old wounds from being torn open through a riot of fact-finding. The next athlete who wants to paint a picture of seemingly otherworldly nobility is going to have to prove it with more than a few photo ops and fascinating story hooks.

At least you’d like to think so. Nothing is as tough to beat as a person who wants to believe the best in people they barely know. People love a good story more than they fear being played as a sucker. Journalists who have all the reportorial skills one could want are human beings, and they root for the story.

They root for the story sometimes instead of rooting for the truth.

But enough soapboxing. This is about what happens next, what beats the Te’o story. It may be Armstrong going to court. It may be Te’o admitting he was part of an elaborate con. It may be someone else entirely doing something spectacularly weirder than making or abetting the creation of a girlfriend and then killing her.

But it’s coming. The Wheel of Weird spins faster and faster in the new age. Deadspin was crushed as a cheap and tawdry web site, and now even sites that give out credit like stock certificates are bowing to Tim Burke and Jack Dickey’s reportorial work. That acknowledgement by the stodgy set is worthy of mention in and of itself.

But that’s not the next leap toward bizarro World. Nobody can imagine what it will be. Nobody could imagine this. It’s why non-fiction is always stranger than fiction – because fiction writers are limited by their own imaginations, while non-fiction writers have the Bizarro World of everyone else’s at their disposal.

And something’s coming to beat Manti Te’o’s story. I have no guess as to what it might be, but I’m stocking up food waiting for it to come.

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