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Manti Te'o, The Athletes We Do Not Know, and the Baseball Hall of Fame

Last week, the Baseball Writers of America voted no one into the Hall of Fame, the first time that had happened in seventeen years. The root causes were numerous, but mostly boiled down to suspicion and uncertainty of what to do with the “steroid era”, with players who took them, players under suspicion of taking them, and even those subject to no whispers.

This week, a player voted to the cusp of the most prestigious award, meanwhile, rode a wave of the opposite of suspicion, by fulfilling all the warm fuzzy feelings and embodying the spirit of sport, whatever that might mean. Is there any doubt that Te’o’s Heisman finish was dictated by the story that has now been outed as a hoax? He got more votes than any other pure defensive player ever. (Woodson also played special teams and some offense). The award has been biased against defenders, and the myth overcame that, as he was not remotely close to being the most dominant defensive player in college football.

When you write a lot, you are bound to put up some stuff that is uncomfortable to revisit–game predictions, previews, etc. As writers, we hope that on the larger stuff, what we write stands the test of time a little better. Thayer Evans rated Te’o number one on the Heisman ballot, and left Johnny Manziel off, because of “character.”

Te’o has been a saint during Notre Dame’s miracle season. He is the best player on the nation’s top scoring defense and has been an inspiration for all in overcoming the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend during a 24-hour period in September. Unfortunately, Te’o won’t win the Heisman Trophy, but he embodies everything the award’s winner should be both on and off the field.

That was a month ago. Ty wrote about ditching hero narratives. Here’s the problem with filling in the blanks with these narratives: we don’t know anybody beyond what we see. Making a decision because Te’o has “it” and Manziel does not is setting one up for failure. It’s hard enough to judge based on what we see.

Which brings me to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s taken a while to crystallize my thoughts on the standards for the Hall of Fame, but this is just another reminder of how dangerous and arbitrary it is to judge on “character”, whatever that means. Those who are espoused with good character are no safer in that regard than others. It goes beyond what is known into myth-making, selective memory, and speculation.

We saw that the drug concerns have been around back when many Hall of Famers played.  The players of any one particular era are more or less moral than another. One of the things that stands out, every time I travel back through the archives like I did in looking at past hoaxes, is that people were no more moral or less likely to be scoundrels fifty years ago. The means and methods are the things that have changed.

So when baseball writers try to make decisions outside the playing lines, they run the risk of making decisions that are both false positives, and false negatives. If anyone believes that the Hall of Fame represents some sort of hallowed hall full of morality, they are a fool. Manti Te’o may be involved in one of the weirder episodes ever, but a month ago he was the embodiment of everything right with sports. Now he is another example of why sports is just a diversion, and we should just stick with what we know. I’m pretty sure that baseball players from the last generation will fit in nicely with all those that went before them.

[photo via USA Today Sports Images]

 

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