Part of reality shows’ allure is schadenfreude. We love seeing some other person make a horrible decision that costs them a million dollars, a record deal or happiness in their relationship with Flavor Flav. In that sense, the NFL Draft has more in common with the likes of Survivor than we realize. Sometimes it’s the player who couldn’t stay off weed until he had a contract making the bad decision. Sometimes it’s the owner drafting a player that fits an offense his new coach doesn’t plan to run. But an NFL draft never has a shortage of bad decisions.
Early ratings have the NFL Draft, which began Thursday night, doing well in May sweeps, possibly contributing to lows for shows including Two and a Half Men. Part of that is the NFL’s undisputed stature as America’s favorite sport. We need our fix so bad we’ll watch a group of college athletes, many destined to crash and burn, just so we have an excuse to talk football in April. The 2013 draft, however, featured a storyline as bizarre and captivating as any tribal alliance.
Manti Te’o was a lock to be a first-round pick back in November. His linebacker play helped bring Notre Dame, always a media darling, back into the college sports spotlight. There was serious talk of Te’o winning the Heisman, nearly unheard of for a defensive player. He had a built in human interest story that the sports media ate up like the press box buffet. During a trying time, he lost both his grandmother and his girlfriend within minutes of each other.
Then one of the craziest scandals in sports history unfolded. We learned that not only did girlfriend Lennay Kukua not die from cancer, she never existed at all. The world wondered whether this innocent looking player had duped us or been duped. If Te’o wasn’t in on the hoax, then had he taken one too many blows to the head already?
We were so busy wondering how Te’o could fall for this, most forgot to ask the mainstream sports media how they fell for it. There were multiple places where just a few questions would have derailed this narrative, and major outlets including ESPN and Sports Illustrated never bothered to ask them.
It wasn’t just the hoax. He was the only person more embarrassed than Brent Musberger after the National Championship Game. He followed that up with a disappointing combine. Everyone’s tagging him as being slow, and worse for his future not all of the critics mean “physically” either.
The linebacker was wise not to journey to New York, sparing himself endless uncomfortable ESPN closeups. His father didn’t even let the local paper into their home. Even without him there, it’s awkward. The commentators point out teams that could use him, and then the teams don’t take him. All 32 NFL squads have made their pick, and decided the guy considered the best linebacker in the country five months ago can’t help them. Sadly, if Lennay Kekua had existed, and Manti stood accused of assaulting her instead of making her up, he might have an easier time.
Because while there would be talk about his character, there wouldn’t be talk of whether he would be a “distraction,” or whether teammates would “accept” him.