As Mark Twain once observed, "Truth is stranger than fiction". Never has that been more apparent than in the last 24 hours in the world of sports media. In case you've been on the moon during that time, Deadspin released a bombshell article yesterday afternoon containing conclusive proof that the girlfriend of All-American Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, who supposedly died of leukemia in September, not only didn't die, but never actually existed. The tale of T'eo losing his grandmother and girlfriend in a 24 hour stretch became part of the narrative of college football this year. In fact, the story may have helped propel T'eo to a second place finish in the Heisman race, the best ever showing for a purely defensive player.
By nightfall, Notre Dame was in full damage control mode. AD Jack Swarbrick held a news conference admitting that Notre Dame had already conducted an internal investigation into the matter and that Te'o was a victim and a "perfect mark" for villians who had created a fake online girlfriend. T'eo released a similar statement indicating that he'd been in an exclusively online and telephone relationship with the woman, and had been a victim of a "sick joke".
Notre Dame claims to have vetted T'eo's version of the story. The University has pledged its full support. Unfortunately, that statement alone raises more questions than it answers. In fact, the whole situation is so chalk full of angles and unanswered questions, I cannot possibly cover them all in one post of reasonable length.
The overarching loose end: Te'o's story doesn't begin to exculpate him. He is on record in various places discussing how the two met (at a Notre Dame-Standford game) and face to face meetings in his home state of Hawaii. Either he never believed these things to be true, or he is the victim of a long con so elaborate it would make the characters in The Sting green with envy. A long con, I might add, that would have no apparent profit motive or real payoff.
Te'o's explanation is an implicit admission that he made up some details.
Swarbrick did not mention how Notre Dame was so sure Te'o wasn't in on it in light of the fact that he has clearly fabricated at least some aspects of the couple's relationship. In fact, the University made no effort to square these seemingly inconsistent conclusions.
Anyone with a triple digit IQ can see that Te'o, and because it chose to interject itself into the middle of the matter, Notre Dame, have more explaining to do. Everyone, that is, except for Pat Forde, who is apparently willing to take Notre Dame's story at face value.
People capable of independent thought have generally fallen into two camps. One set believes that T'eo was duped by someone online, genuinely forged a relationship with a woman who turned out to be fake, then made up details after the narrative got out of control. Maybe he began to realize that had been fooled after the fact, and was afraid of being caught. Maybe he was embarrassed to admit that this person who was so dear to him was someone he'd never actually seen.
Camp two believes something far more nefarious. Frankly, ample circumstantial evidence exists to support that conclusion. One, Te'o has clearly lied about some things. Two, Deadspin makes a clear connection between him and the person it identifies as the source of the online portion of the hoax. The idea that anyone would go to these lengths to destroy the life of someone who could tear the average person from limb from limb seems farfetched. Especially given that no money has been exchanged and we've heard nothing about extortion.
Finally, it seems strange that the most famous football player on a football mad campus would ever settle for an online relationship, let alone show so much devotion to someone he'd never met. This last aspect is probably easier for someone in their 20s to swallow than those of us with a little more age on us. If even one aspect of T'eo's version is true, its clear that the dating world has changed more in the internet age than many of us who grew up without it realized. But still.
I'm not sure where I fall, but I'd have to say that Manti Te'o is either one of the most gullible or most conniving people on earth. There aren't many other conclusions to draw.
However that shakes out, there are so many other salacious aspects to this, they are hard to sort.
1. How did this story ever get going in the first place? Before anyone reported on Lennay Kekua's death, she had no internet footprint. A simple google search would have yielded no obituary, no mention of her death in Stanford school newspapers or alumni magazines. No Facebook profile. Didn't this strike anyone (I'm looking at you Pete Thamel) as odd?
2. Why didn't this story break sooner? Despite it's stature, Stanford is not a big place. Surely someone there would have found it odd that neither they or anyone else they knew was even acquainted with Lennay Kekua. Anyone with an ounce of curiosity and a computer could have figured out this was fishy. Huge kuddos to Deadspin for breaking this story. But it seems odd in the internet age that no one figured this out a long time ago.
(Note: ESPN claims that it has sat on this story for 10 days, waiting for comment from ND and T'eo. That is a whole 'nother kettle of fish.)
3. Who paid for Notre Dame's investigation, and why? This isn't an NCAA issue. At most it was a private matter involving a student athlete. If this was conducted to benefit T'eo, was this benefit even permissible? For that matter, as I alluded to before, why would the University even involve itself in this, let alone start taking sides? Most importantly, how did the expense and breadth of this investigation compare to the investigations into the alleged assault of Lizzy Seeberg by Nortre Dame players? Or the death of student manager Declan Sullivan?
I fear the answers to those last two.
4. Combination of 2&3. Is it even remotely plausible that someone at Notre Dame, either in the athletic department or SID, hadn't sniffed this out long ago?
5. Whether T'eo was in on it or not, what was the underlying motivation of this hoax? Either way, it makes little sense. If this was a publicity stunt, why would a college athlete set to make millions as an NFL player take such a risk for a few Heisman votes? It could not have possibly been worth the effort. Conversely, why would someone else do this to him? If this all happened without his knowledge, it had to have been exhausting. We might not ever have a more satisfying answer than "people are crazy".
I usually get over these stories after a couple of days. If I never heard another word about Lance Armstrong again, it would be too soon. But this one has me fascinated. In the end, I don't care much about Te'o one way or another. He's a good football player. There is a tale here, though, and no matter where on the continuum his culpability falls, there are many layers to peel away in what is surely one of the oddest sports stories ever.
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