Discover more from The Sports Column
MANTI TE’O, WE CAN FORGIVE — DEADSPIN IS SCUM FOREVERMORE
A Netflix documentary revisits how a career was derailed by a catfishing scheme, but never forget: With a long record of lies and defamation, the sleazy site that broke the story is the biggest fraud
Truth be known, Deadspin always was a much bigger fraud than Manti Te’o. The sports website trafficked in malice, recklessly disregarding the facts, cowardly hiding behind the First Amendment while daring public figures to file lawsuits they most likely couldn’t win.
All one has to do, for only a small whiff of the stench, is call up “lawsuits against Deadspin and Gawker” on Google. Not until the parent company was sued into oblivion by Hulk Hogan, whose privacy was invaded in a sex tape, did the defamation factory fade in self-immolation. The contents of sewage tanks and garbage trucks were cleaner. The hands of gastroenterologists, too.
So please don’t come away from the definitive documentary about Te’o and the catfishing scandal that derailed his football career — “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” on Netflix — believing Deadspin was anything but a crap shop. Just as Mario Mendoza managed a base hit every so often, belying the .200 batting average known as the Mendoza Line, the clickbait rats occasionally stumbled upon a legitimate piece of cheese. In this case, someone out to get Te’o sent Deadspin an e-mail saying his “dead’’ girlfriend never existed, which was true, contrary to the storyline that accompanied Te’o’s celebrated senior season at Notre Dame. He’d been classic fodder for the Golden Dome myth-making machine, the charismatic Heisman Trophy candidate leading the charge to the national championship game, all while supposedly dealing with the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend.
Only his grandmother was real. A naive kid was burned in the dark, dirty infancy of catfishing, victimized by an admittedly troubled person named Ronaiah “Naya” Tuiasosopo, who created a fake online persona to lure Te’o into what he thought was a romance. His first mistake was getting involved in a digital relationship without ever meeting face to face with one “Lennay Kekua,” not even on FaceTime. His bigger mistake was continuing to speak in interviews about her “death” after realizing she was fictional. Was Te’o complicit in the fairy tale? Did he perpetuate it amid an emerging theme of tragedy and triumph, as America rooted for him? Why didn’t he just come out and say he was hoaxed the minute he knew? To hear him explain, almost a decade later, I’d say he was 21 years old and clueless about the evils of the Internet and how to handle sudden celebrity and fame.
“I didn’t know what to believe. What do you do with that information?” Te’o says now, speaking to CBS this week during a documentary media tour. “Do you call somebody and say, ‘Hey, I just found out somebody's alive?’ ”
Embarrassing? Yes. Was he guilty of immaturity, gullibility and placing too much trust in an online stranger? Yes, yes and yes. Did he commit a crime? Not at all. But the resulting media furor and public backlash rocked his very being and prompted him to seek extensive therapy, as Te’o reveals in the show. He’s no longer employed by an NFL team, apparently finished with a disappointing, injury-riddled pro career.
“In order for me to kind of heal from this, I needed to reveal it," he says of revisiting his personal Twilight Zone, which included years of mocking and memes. “I want to bring more light to my grandmother because it is almost like this story overshadows her. If there’s anything I’d like to do, it’s to give my grandmother that respect that has kind of been missed the last ten years. … I’m going to rise above no matter how hard it is for me. Treat (people) nice in a world that just spit on you. I’ll take all this crap, I’ll take all the jokes, I’ll take all the memes so I can be an inspiration to (the) one (fan) who needs me to be. That’s the whole reason I am doing this.”
Good for him. I feel sorry for him. I hope he enjoys a great life away from the madness. He was married two years ago to his personal trainer, Jovi Nicole Engbino, no insignificant development.
As for Deadspin, the site inevitably and thankfully was DeadSPUN — shamed into irrelevance, a gutted staff, new ownership and, mostly, legal obedience. As for the two bro-dudes who broke the catfishing story in early 2013, neither is working for a credible news organization, according to their bios. Woodward and Bernstein, they are not. In the Netflix show, one guy was shown in his home office with massive banks of video screens and tech equipment that would make the FBI blush, if not obtain a search warrant.
When Hogan was suing Gawker, I called his lawyer and offered context. I knew how these people operated. Some of us who appeared regularly on ESPN programs — for eight years, I was a near-daily regular on the “Around The Horn” debatefest — were used in Deadspin’s clickbait mission. The lies about me started as the show was catching fire, succeeding as a heavily watched lead-in to “Pardon The Interruption.” I generally laughed at the smear campaign, knowing I’d be a hypocrite to complain too loudly as a critic of sports and media. Looking back, that was an error. I should have called out the lies from the outset, which my sportswriting brethren weren’t willing to do, afraid of being targeted by the creeps who created and fostered the Deadspin culture.
Eventually, after years of falsehoods and presumptions and elaborate fabrications about my career and life, I was forced to call a lawyer after lies were written by a Deadspin person. This legal journey found me — a sports columnist and broadcast commentator — ultimately holding the power one weekend to delay GQ magazine’s print publication run. In a story almost as bizarre as Te’o’s, except it’s entirely true, we’ll begin when I was called to a meeting by a TV producer in a restaurant lounge off the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, at the foot of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Among those at our table were another since-departed ESPN personality, football analyst Sean Salisbury, and our agents. The producer wanted us to host a sports show of some sort.
As we discussed the project, a prominent ESPN executive, John Walsh, entered the bar area. Put it this way: He was having a jolly old time, which didn’t bother me until he came by our table — though not recognizing me or Salisbury — and handed his business card to a woman he didn’t know. His room number was on the back of the card. I was offended, to say the least. What, did Walsh not read his own company handbook? Next day, I contacted his boss and longtime friend, John Skipper, who recently had been named ESPN president and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks. I copied Laurie Orlando, also an ESPN executive at the time.
In my e-mail, I wrote of the company culture: “In my mind, executives should be held to even higher standards in a strict behavioral climate. Yet your colleague embarrassed himself in full view of a packed house of restaurant and bar customers …”
The day was Jan. 24, 2012. Skipper immediately wrote back: “What number can I call you at?”
We talked. I told him I didn’t appreciate disciplinary double standards. He thanked me for my “constructive criticism.” Life went on. I traveled as a bon vivant, lathering myself with suntan lotion in my new southern California digs. Time passed. I took a job as columnist and sports director at the San Francisco Examiner, but not before Deadspin culture reared its sickly head once again. Someone — I still don’t know who — leaked the Walsh details, dated as they were, complete with a camera-phone video of the executive wobbling in our midst that night. Deadspin wrote about it, of course. I did not take the video or leak the video, and Deadspin never suggested in its story that I had. Still, much of it was filled with lies and misconceptions, as usual. Even as I was defending a harassed woman at our table, I never could be viewed as anything but a scoundrel by Deadspin. The piece almost seemed influenced by ESPN, in that it implied I’d used the Walsh episode to gain employment at the network. Wrong. I didn’t meet with Skipper for more than a year after our e-mail exchange and chat. Maybe he was curious about an accomplished columnist who’d appeared on his network about 1,800 times, more if radio gigs are considered. He mentioned a possible editing position. He then suggested I travel to North Carolina to interview Michael Jordan, and when Wright Thompson already was working on it, I opted for a one-on-one interview with Kobe Bryant. The story soon was published on ESPN.com. We went our separate ways. Besides, at that point, why would I want anything to do with ESPN?
When Deadspin posted the Walsh video, in 2014, Skipper wasn’t happy. Enter GQ. In its September edition that year, with actor Adam Driver on the cover, Deadspin-based writer Drew Magary all but accused me of extortion in a story — first published on the magazine website — about various sports figures at the time. Magary, who never contacted me or my representatives, falsely connected me to the video and claimed I’d coerced ESPN into giving me assignments. This would be a reckless disregard of the truth — as his own Deadspin editors could have told him — and formed the basis for a potential libel suit.
He was trafficking in malice. Gotcha, fool. Gotcha, Deadspin. Say what you want about my robust opinions about sports people through the years, including clout-packed owners and media executives. I’ve never been sued for libel or slander. Perhaps it’s because I attended media law classes, unlike the stoners whose lips were on bongs somewhere.
So we contacted GQ, which quickly admitted guilt. We took our good, old time deciding whether to sue or accept a retraction, briefly halting the print production run. Maybe I should have asked to be on the cover. Most likely, I would have won a settlement, but tempting as it was to spend a ton of money and depose Deadspin and ESPN folks, I accepted a retraction/editor’s note that appeared immediately with a revised story in the online edition. A journalist does not sue, right? Right? A lightly corrected narrative remained a wildly inaccurate debacle, but in an ongoing climate of rampant media sloppiness, I accepted one retraction as incremental progress. Our next call was to the Chicago Tribune, which picked up the GQ lie without bothering to verify accuracy with me.
Had I killed the Deadspin culture? Not yet. The creepiest of the creeps, longtime editor A.J. Daulerio, was working at another site amid his long, chronicled battle with drugs and his central role in the Hogan failure. On my first day in the Examiner newsroom, he offered money to staffers for dirt on me, which led the publisher to threaten firings if anyone fed the rat.
As I’ve explained often, the beleaguered newspaper’s attempt to improve sports coverage ran out of necessary resources, which became evident when I asked why our free-lance writers weren’t being paid and didn’t get an answer. It’s a miracle I stuck around for a year. Yet the GQ retraction didn’t stop another Deadspin person from contacting me as I left the paper.
My bosses and I agreed weeks before Super Bowl 50 that the sports experiment was doomed, but I wanted to cover the game in Santa Clara and enjoy the week. They let me, and I stayed a while longer. In my last days, I chose to return Twitter crossfire to the editor-in-chief of the rival Chronicle. She had ripped me in a tweet when I arrived in town, even misquoting me from a story about me in her own newspaper. I didn’t respond until my final week, when I wrote that she was running the Chronicle into the ground and letting feminism shade a fair view of me. Since then, she has moved on, replaced by Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, who is doing great things.
Accuracy didn’t stop the Deadspinner, Kevin Draper, from asking via e-mail if I’d been fired for the tweet. No, I was not. Not true in the least, as the Examiner editor-in-chief told him. Didn’t matter. He was assuming, though the first syllable of assume is ass, and I threatened to “Hulk Hogan” him.
What happened to Draper? He was hired by the New York Times.
Journalism marches on.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.