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Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman on Manti Te'o


Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman on Manti Te o

Source: grantland.com

Stashed in: Football, New Yorker, Pants on fire!, @gladwell

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Everyone is outraged but no one is angry, especially since the timing coincides with Lane Armstrong coming clean to Oprah about all his lying and cheating.

Gladwell says how powerful a story stringing together three archetypal narratives can be:

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Before we get into the question of what Manti Te'o did and didn't know, can we go back and reflect on the singular genius of the hoax itself? The young girlfriend of a prominent football player is severely injured in a car crash and then dies of leukemia. It's so good. It's three of the great modern inspirational narratives, all in one.

The first element is: beautiful young girl dies of leukemia. It's Love Story, right? The most influential Hollywood tearjerker of the past 50 years. Ali MacGraw dies tragically of leukemia, leaving Ryan O'Neal bereft: Love means never having to say you're sorry.

Then there's the "inspirational outsider" motif, which goes all the way back to Notre Dame, Knute Rockne, and the famous "win one for the Gipper" speech. Notre Dame's star, George Gipp, is on his deathbed with pneumonia. He says to Rockne (at least in the movie version):

"I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. Sometime, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock. But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy."

On the strength of that inspiration, Notre Dame rises up and beats previously undefeated Army 12-6.

Chuck Pagano, stricken with leukemia and inspiring the Colts this year from his hospital bed, is a version of this. Or remember Pete Sampras playing an epic five-setter with Jim Courier just after hearing that his coach, Tim Gullikson, had suffered what appeared to be his third stroke within three months, on his way to dying of brain cancer. Deep in the match, a spectator yells out, "Win it for your coach, Pete," and Sampras, suffering through severely blistered feet, bursts into tears.

The crucial element of this kind of story is that the off-the-field tragedy does not diminish the importance of the game (as you would expect, logically, that it might). It makes the athlete take his task even more seriously. Sampras goes on to win the match. (Of course.) The Colts overachieve. When Pittsburgh Pirates manager Chuck Tanner's mother died just before Game 5 of the 1979 World Series, Tanner, famously, goes ahead and manages the game because his mother would have wanted him to keep working. That's why it's so crucial, for narrative purposes, that Te'o didn't go to his girlfriend's funeral — even though, you know, a man might reasonably be expected to want to go to his girlfriend's funeral. She told him, he said, that she didn't want him to miss a game.

Then comes the third part — the Icarus myth. Our hero flies too close to the sun. This is the story of the star who dies tragically in a car or plane crash. The examples here are almost too numerous to mention: Steve Prefontaine, Thurman Munson, Roberto Clemente, Jerome Brown, Ayrton Senna, Derrick Thomas — not to mention the granddaddy of them all, James Dean. Too fast to live, too young to die.

Typically, these are entirely separate narratives. In a way that might not be appreciated today, Love Story is very much about leukemia. That was the culturally resonant disease of that era. It struck healthy, innocent young people, entirely at random. The death rate was close to 100 percent. The Icarus narrative is completely different. It's not about innocence. It's about the heroic self-destructiveness of youth. James Dean was a rebel without a cause. Jerome Brown was a man-child. The whole point of Pre's genius is that he pushed himself to the absolute limit.

There's a great moment in Ray Robinson's Rockne of Notre Dame when he describes Rockne taking his team down to play Georgia Tech in the 1920s. This was the heart of Ku Klux Klan country — and the Klan, of course, hated Catholics as much as they hated blacks and Jews. In the locker room before the game, Rockne gave his usual passionate speech about pride and dedication, then suddenly lowered his voice. Robinson writes:

Arriving at this climax, Rockne slowly removed a crumpled telegraph from his pocket. In silence he stared at the words on the missive. Then he began to read aloud: "PLEASE WIN THIS GAME FOR MY DADDY. IT'S VERY IMPORTANT TO HIM."

"It's from Billy," Rockne said, referring to his beloved 6-year-old son, the team's unofficial mascot. "He's very ill and is in the hospital." When Rockne finished, some of the players, Robinson writes, "began to cry, while others jumped up from their perches and swore they would annihilate Tech just for Billy. Indeed, that's exactly what they proceeded to do."

Billy was not the girlfriend of the quarterback. He did not mortally injure himself taking drugs or driving too fast. He was narrowly and specifically in the second, "inspirational outsider" category.

So what is so fantastic about the Manti Te'o story? It is all three narratives, all in one. It's Love Story meets Icarus meets inspirational outsider. It wasn't enough that Manti's love affair be doomed, that his girlfriend had leukemia, and that he drew from her death the inspiration to go out and get 12 tackles in the crucial defeat of Michigan State. She also had to be severely injured in a car accident. It's a combo platter! It's so over-the-top I am in awe. You couldn't be more right that this is an "aggressively modern" scandal. Why would anyone in the 21st century settle for just one played-out story line?

What's not modern, though, is the made-up part. "Billy," Knute Rockne's son? Totally healthy back home in South Bend.

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When a lie is good enough, we call it a story of fiction.

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