Even the sports-indifferent Internet is agog today at Deadspin's scoop. The story of Manti Te'o's imaginary girlfriend is only the first half of an already insane story—a star football player either got tricked into falling in love with an imaginary girlfriend, or made her up himself. The mainstream journalists who covered the story, including some at Sports Illustrated failed to factcheck because who would doubt a star athlete when he says his girlfriend is dying of cancer? What kind of journalist could be so cynical? In Deadspin's telling, the answer is, "a good one."
I smiled when I started reading this story, and got giddy as it went on—not because I'm happy about the darkness at its heart, but because I can't help but love a good hoax. Even the word is tantalizing—redolent of con men, snake oil salesmen, and the bygone days when the media was strong enough that, if a newspaper was fooled, the nation was too. This hoax has everything: sex, sport, death and mormons. It's even better than the hipster grifter.
For whatever reason, it made me think of Sidd Finch. Sidd, the mysterious yogi-cum-fastballer who threw 168 miles per hour, was lauded in an April Fool's Day Sports Illustrated as the greatest baseball prospect in history. Even if it weren't published on April 1, George Plimpton's story includes enough outlandish details that the prank should have been obvious. Finch pitched with one bare foot and one work boot; he carried a French horn everywhere; and he was the son of Indiana Jones:
Finch spent his early childhood in an orphanage in Leicester, England and was adopted by a foster parent, the eminent archaeologist Francis Whyte-Finch, who was killed in an airplane crash while on an expedition in the Dhaulagiri mountain area of Nepal. At the time of the tragedy, Finch was in his last year at the Stowe School in Buckingham, England, from which he had been accepted into Harvard. Apparently, though, the boy decided to spend a year in the general area of the plane crash in the Himalayas (the plane was never actually found) before he returned to the West and entered Harvard in 1975, dropping for unknown reasons the "Whyte" from his name.
But people believed it. In Plimpton's telling, the New York Mets kept their star prospect so under wraps, it was a struggle to even get the story. Every bit of information he finds only deepens the mystery, making the gawky young man a legend by the end of the first page. Well-faked quotes from Mets officials, other players, and people out of Finch's shadowy past give it credibility. (Mets brass was actually in on the joke, making me nostalgic not just for the days when the Mets would land a mythical pitching prospect, but also had a sense humor.) Find this story folded into what was then the home of sports journalism, and it would be easy to believe.
And, of course, that's what we want to do. Sports appeal to our sentimental side, the part of us that wants to believe that superheroes are real. We like it when normal people do things like this, and we get irrational when we find out they did it by cheating. Tell us a lie, and we'll believe it, just so long as it's amazing. Thankfully, Deadspin is wary of a story that's too good to be true. Google in hand, they would have blown the Sidd Finch story out of the water in a matter of minutes.
People are less bothered by a hoax when the media is in on it. The people responsible go down as scoundrels; the people who fell for it are mocked as rubes. The Sidd Finch hoax was more of a prank—it was April Fool's Day, for god's sake, and it was done in good fun. We need the media to be smarter than we are, and when we prank us, that superiority is reinforced. When the media gets hoodwinked, it's sickening.