Growing up in Nevada County, when I wanted to catch a catfish, I used chicken liver as bait. My father and I would get the liver from Holiday Market in Penn Valley, go over to Lake Wildwood and reel in giant catfish from the small man-made lake.
Fast forward about 20 years and “catfishing” has taken on a whole new meaning.
According to Urban Dictionary, a “catfish” is someone who pretends to be someone he is not online by creating false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.
In former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s situation, the “catfish” was the one who put out the bait, and Te’o chomped down hard.
Now the All-American linebacker has been ripped from the warm waters that his on-the-field heroics and off-the-field iconic stature had afforded him and is left to flop around like a (cat)fish out of water in the public eye for everyone to ridicule.
All it took for the latest sports icon to be humiliated and disgraced was an attractive profile picture coupled with an elaborate and completely fabricated back story.
Since the news broke Wednesday, there has been non-stop speculation about Te’o’s involvement in the hoax and how much he really knew. Some believe Te’o was in on it from the start in efforts to bolster his Heisman hopes. Others believe he found out somewhere along the way and chose to continue the charade. Any way it shakes out, I imagine ESPN and every other sports media outlet will continue to dig through and devour the multiple-award-winning athlete for months and possibly years to come. This hoax, whether he was in on it or not, will follow him well past the NFL Combine in February, the 2013 NFL Draft in April and likely into the first years of his professional career.
But this type of sensationalistic and non-sport-related story is becoming common place in sports journalism.
“Catfishing” isn’t the only thing that has changed its meaning in the last 20 years. Sports journalism is a different beast than it used to be — a beast that likes to feast on the frauds, fakes and philanderers.
It’s a beast that gobbles up drama and regurgitates it over and over ad nauseum.
From Lance Armstrong, see story on bottom of B1, to Spygate, Bountygate, Tiger Woods’ infedelity, Penn State’s cover up, Barry Bonds’ gel and Roger Clemens’ old syringe, the sports media world has turned to tabloid journalism in an effort to grab audiences.
It’s not that the off-the-field stuff shouldn’t be reported. It should. It often has something to do with what happens on the field (i.e. steroids). And as a society, we look up to athletes, not as much as we used to and rightfully so, but we still look up to them as role models. So when they mess up, it’s the sports media’s job to let the public know what kind of person they are cheering for.
But the tabloid-style reporting that has saturated sports news is overshadowing the positives sports present and shining a big bright light on the negatives.
That’s what’s so troubling about Te’o’s case. Te’o is by all accounts a fine upstanding young man who volunteers his time to charities and youth groups. Nothing illegal was perpetrated by or against him, no money was stolen, and the only person who got truly hurt is Te’o. So why must sports journalists continue to dig and speculate?
The seemingly bored, yet incredibly ambitious sports media make this hoax seem like the scandal of century, and it will be — that is until the next one breaks in a week or two. But for Te’o, lasting damage has already been done to his reputation, and some say it will hurt him in the draft.
In hindsight, Te’o should have known something fishy was going on, but a trusting nature is not something to be frowned on or vilified on a national stage.
To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.