Deadspin Rides Manti Te’o Hoax Story to Renown—and Keeps Heat on ESPN
by David Freedlander
The Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax put the website, once derided as a repository for juvenile jokes, on the map. Editor Tommy Craggs tells David Freedlander the site’s philosophy is not to take sports too seriously—and to keep the pressure on its “death star,” ESPN.
When Jack Dickey, a college senior at Columbia and a writer at the website Deadspin, told editor Tommy Craggs he’d heard a tip that star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o did not in fact have a girlfriend whose death inspired the Fighting Irish’s undefeated season, Craggs wrote back in an instant message, “This would be the most amazing story. This would be fucking amazing.”
“Oh man,” he added in a transcript shared with The Daily Beast. “I have such a hard-on. I want this story. I want it I want it I want it.”
When the story broke a few days later, causing one of the biggest and most bizarre scandals in American sports—and a bit of soul-searching on the part of sports reporters who had bought into the story of a young woman who was twice near death from leukemia and the effects of a car accident only to insist that her boyfriend not attend her funeral, but play on in her honor—it was perhaps the first time people outside of sports-world obsessives had heard of, let alone read, Deadspin.
But to anyone paying attention, the 3,500-word story was further proof that a website, once derided as little more than a repository for juvenile jokes and throwing spitballs at the mainstream press, had become a permanent presence in the sports mediasphere. And that the line between major news outlet and supposedly inconsequential blogsite had dropped considerably, if it hasn’t disappeared altogether.
This may surprise, especially for a site that, as of this writing, boasts on its front page a round-up of the best GIFs from the Super Bowl the night before, a video of a shirtless Baltimore Raven jumping off a building and into a tree, and a tally of “boobs and nut shots” from the slew of Super Bowl commercials that aired Sunday night.
“The reason Deadspin exists is because there is a gap between how sports gets talked about in the official media and how fans consume and talk about it and think about. Deadspin exists in that gap,” Craggs said in an interview late last week in his SoHo office.
Deadspin is an off-shoot of Gawker Media, the pioneering gossip site. On the walls of their elegant, hardwood-floored newsrooms sit framed photos of some of the masters of the craft: Joan Didion, George Orwell, Matt Drudge.
Craggs was recruited to the site by A.J. Daulerio, a hard-charging reporter credited with turning the site from the one-man snarky musings of its founder, Will Leitch (now with New York magazine), into what GQ called “the raunchiest, funniest, and most controversial sports site on the Web” for publishing photos of Brett Favre’s penis that the former New York Jets quarterback had sent to a sideline reporter, or publishing photos of self-described recovering alcoholic Texas slugger Josh Hamilton partying it up with some young co-eds at a bar.
Craggs came up through what he called “all the shit-eating young journalism stuff”—an internship at an alt-weekly and at Harper’s Magazine, fact-checking for ESPN the Magazine, freelance writing for various publications about sports.
The ESPN magazine stint is ironic, since a good bit of Deadspin’s focus these days is taking on what Craggs called “the death star.” If Deadspin has one singular white whale, it is the guys in Bristol, Conn.
“What makes us different from ESPN is that we don’t think our readers are utter morons,” said Craggs. “What makes us different from other sports sites is that we have a very obvious death star, and we are very obviously oriented around it.”
To understand the site’s all-out focus on ESPN, it is necessary to understand the role that ESPN plays in the world of sports journalism. There is, quite simply, nothing else like it in the world of media. The network generates huge profits for teams and leagues by buying up broadcast rights, but also thinks of itself as a journalistic institution that objectively covers the people responsible for its continued existence.
Under Daulerio, the site declared all-out war on ESPN. He had received a tip that baseball analyst Steve Phillips was having an extramarital affair with an assistant and was soon to be let go by the network. A spokesman for the network denied it, and a few weeks later the whole story ended up in the New York Post. (The network disputes this account.) Daulerio decided to empty his inbox of all the salacious rumors he had been hearing from employees in Bristol, and even off-air, back-office executives were fair game for Deadspin’s “ESPNHORNDOGGERY” segments.
“What makes us different from ESPN is that we don’t think our readers are utter morons.”
“As a stunt, it was brilliant. As a work of journalism, it was problematic. It probably wasn’t the best thing we have ever done,” Craggs says of the battle. And now, he says, the site has “narrowed our focus” on ESPN.
“There have been a handful of stories about people there banging their hairdresser or whatever, but I think the best stuff [we do] on ESPN is about how their news operation is getting ground up by the entertainment side of things. A lot of the scandals there are basically from ESPN just tripping over its own dick.”
In March, the site hired John Koblin, a well-respected media reporter at WWD and The New York Observer, to cover ESPN almost exclusively. He has since written stories skewering the network for its overhyped coverage of a New York Jets backup quarterback/cultural icon, unearthed that a reporter for the website was cribbing off Wikipedia, and revealed that a columnist for the website had a side job as a scam artist.
[Full disclosure—Koblin and I briefly overlapped at The Observer.]
To hear Deadspin tell it, the problem with ESPN is not just that the network has colonized the sports landscape, but that it has changed the way people actually talk about sports. The locker-room lingo the men in the garish suits spout on Sportscenter and elsewhere is taken as native to the subject, when, in fact, unironically using phrases like “deuce,” “diaper dandy” and “aloha means goodbye,” is well, sort of ridiculous.
Deadspin exists as a counterweight to all of that, the sport news site for the urban sophisticate who doesn’t think the whole enterprise should be taken that seriously. So much of what not just ESPN, but the whole sports-media complex, does is what industry reporters call “God-ing up”—that is, turning the players and coaches into larger-than-life legends, their stories the stuff of myth and redemption. Deadspin punctures a hole in all of that.
“I would watch ESPN and it didn’t appeal to me, and I didn’t understand to whom it would appeal,” said Dickey, the college-age reporter on the Te’o story. He had been, he said, reading Deadspin since he was 15; working there now is the pinnacle of a lifelong dream. “It’s really weird the way [ESPN] talks about sports. Nobody talks about sports that way.”
In response to this story, Josh Krulewitz, a spokesman for ESPN, told The Daily Beast, “We are aggressive about researching what sports fans enjoy and we work hard to fulfill our mission to serve them. To that end, while some media commentary from various outlets may be over the top at times, if and when the criticism is thoughtful and constructive, we look to learn from it.”
A decent bit of Deadspin’s content is fairly thinly sourced—an anonymous partygoer recounting what some famous sports star said at a party he or she attended and the like—but it is that kind of stuff that Craggs says brings people to the site, and it’s the more thoughtful, “prestige stories” that get them to stay.
“They are the watchmen,” said Dave Zirin, author of Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down. “I know they do it all very tongue-in-cheek and that so much of their website is devoted to humor, and the lighter side of sports, but all of that is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. If Deadspin didn’t exist, someone would have to invent them.”
All of which brings us back to Te’o. The story was, in many ways, the perfect Deadspin story. After it broke, ESPN told The New York Times that it too was working on a Te’o story, but hadn’t yet nailed down the particulars—the unspoken assumption being that, unlike some people, the network doesn’t run stories until nailing down all the facts. But according to Michael Butterworth, a professor of media at Bowling Green, ESPN has an incentive to slow-walk those kinds of stories since so much of the network is based on treating figures like Te’o as larger than life, their personal struggles too good to check.
And the fact that Te’o, wittingly or not, found the narrative that made him an irresistible target for sport journalists hungry for a story, makes him kind of the shining example of all that Craggs and his merry band of bloggers have set out to prove.
“There is a part of me that kind of loves Manti for this,” Craggs says. “Whether it was on a conscious or unconscious level, he found a loophole in sports media and nudged his story through it.”
“To my eye,” Craggs adds, “he is the best press critic in America.”