We have all heard some version of the story by now, a story first reported by Deadspin.com on Wednesday. Notre Dame’s poster-boy linebacker – Heisman runner-up, National Championship runner-up, national sympathy recipient and projected top-10 NFL draft pick Manti Te’o - had been involved in a hoax of staggering proportions. Deadspin revealed that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who he had spoken of as an inspiration throughout their relationship and in her death of leukemia in September, never existed. She was nothing more than an online personality and an unknown voice on the phone. When this broke, Manti’s role in the hoax was unknown; did he perpetrate the story for sympathy, for attention on a run at the Heisman, or some even deeper motive, or was he simply a victim of a cruel and terrible Catfishing scheme? An anonymous source in the article said he was “80% sure” Manti was knowingly involved from the beginning. As I read the Deadspin article late Wednesday afternoon, my own head began to… ahem… spin. I felt like I had vertigo. My first reaction was, like everyone else’s, shock and disbelief. But it was the second reaction where I diverged from about 90% of Twitter users; I did not immediately point an accusing finger at Manti Te’o. This is because, having gone to school with him for three years, having several mutual friends, and working with the Notre Dame football team for an entire season, I had the privilege of getting to know Manti a little bit. And it’s readily apparent when you spend any time at all with him; he’s really a good guy. Whether that makes me biased or more qualified to judge the situation probably depends on your stance. I think it has helped me maintain perspective.
When the story broke, many rushed quickly to judgment. Twitter exploded with assessments of the situation, with tweeps calling him an attention whore who wanted the media notoriety for a Heisman run, a closeted gay who made up a girlfriend as a cover, a pathological liar, or even mentally troubled. I can see where an outside observer could draw such conclusions – it looks awful from the outside looking in – but my own personal experience with Te’o led me to sincerely doubt these as true. Nevertheless, many questions remained in my mind. There were still a great deal of inconsistencies in the story. I couldn’t believe that the hoax was his idea, but what was my alternative?
Then I watched Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame’s athletic director, give a press conference a few hours later. He explained the idea of Catfishing, that Manti was the victim of a hoax, and that a private investigator hired by ND had discovered online chatter – “casually cruel” chatter, according to Swarbrick - between several parties who perpetrated the hoax. His sincerity, emotion, and willingness to stick his own neck out for Manti convinced me fully of Te’o's lack of involvement in the planned perpetuation of this fraud. You see, I also know Jack Swarbrick. I have had several conversations with him, and I have been unreservedly impressed each time. He spoke to a small group of young men in my dorm last year as part of our Distinguished Speaker Series, and after sharing his personal story, he facilitated the most frank and straightforward question-and-answer time I have ever seen from any figure in sports. He also later met with me one-on-one to discuss my career prospects, and to advise me on how to move forward in my goal to become an athletic director myself one day. He was nothing less than generous, welcoming, and honest, and I really grew to admire him through these experiences. When I watched the press conference, I no longer had any doubt about how this whole hoax began. (Sources have since divulged that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo perpetrated this hoax without Manti’s knowledge, thus confirming my beliefs).
That only clears Manti to a point though. What about the many inconsistencies in his story? What about how he said he met Kekua in 2009 after an ND-Stanford game, and they had a moment where they touched hands and locked eyes? What about how she has supposedly visited him in Hawaii? How could he never have met her in a year? There are a lot of holes in his account.
And this is where I have to cut him down. He lied about a lot of things. He made it worse. He definitely handled it poorly in some ways. He REALLY needs to stop hiding out now, and just face the music. He’s making it worse for himself and for everyone who is defending him and believing in him, and that needs to stop. He and the Irish had such an incredible season, but it seems to be spoiling more and more by the day. Talk to us, Manti. Admit where you lied, where you were duped, and share the truth openly.
Now, though there is no acceptable excuse for lying as he did, I also contend that people need to get off Manti’s back a little bit. Twitter has been especially heinous. First of all, there is little to no proof that he was behind the hoax in the first place. In fact, Deadspin’s ”80% sure” anonymous source is the the only actual evidence I’ve heard, despite egregious amounts of accusation taking place. So there’s that. Next, consider the stakes and the circumstances here. You have to understand the shock, horror, embarrassment, mortification and head-spinning questions caused by the phone call on December 6th. He didn’t even believe it for a while, I’m sure. Then the Heisman ceremony was December 8th; should he have said, “Oh, by the way, guys… my dead girlfriend is fake” live at the Heisman ceremony? Come on. I’m sure he needed quite a bit of time to deal with these appalling developments, and as Jack Swarbrick has recently divulged, to try to follow up on it himself. In addition, imagine the questions that arise if he comes out with this news soon after the Heisman ceremony. He would be vilified even more for playing with the voters’ sympathies in an effort to win the trophy! The suspicions of this being a hoax for attention would be even more heightened. I’m also sure that once he confirmed that he had in fact been duped, in mid-to-late December, he did want to talk to his parents in person instead of over the phone. So he waits a bit for all that to clear up… but then if he comes public with it in late December- early January, it becomes the biggest distraction of all time for the Irish before their first national championship game in 22 years. If the Irish lose and Manti has come out with this story beforehand, he takes a good deal of the blame. That seems undesirable. First he was the victim of a terrible hoax, then upon its revelation, was placed in a terrible situation where there was NO WIN for him. At all. Just judgment and suspicion from all sides, except from Swarbrick and those who actually know him. If I could see Jack Swarbrick today, I would give him a huge hug and I would probably cry on his shoulder for sticking his neck out so damn far for this great kid. Not a perfect kid… just a great kid.
You see, they’re all just kids. Manti Te’o is almost two years younger than me. And the attention and platform and pedestal is all OURS, not theirs. Sure, he embraced it; he told a story that was incredibly moving for him. He had no reason not to. But he doesn’t check his humanity or his privacy at the door when he decides to attend Notre Dame. Just because he is in this spotlight doesn’t mean he ceases to be a college student. Maybe these stakes make it more complicated than a simple, indignant “He should have told everyone immediately as soon as he got that call!”
Maybe he should have told his parents in person in New York, even if he wasn’t sure what to think yet. I think he should have gotten it out sooner. He should have never lied about meeting her or any other lies he told. He was probably embarrassed about how their relationship started and was proceeding, and I can definitely feel him there. That still doesn’t make it okay by any means.
But please, consider this as well; he has also done so much on and off the field for Notre Dame. I’m truly grateful for all that. It was an amazing season, and he overcame REAL anguish and heartbreak this year (regardless of this debacle, his grandmother did die, and he did genuinely believe that another person he had grown to care deeply about passed away as well) to play a spectacular season for a team that went on an incredible run. Let’s not discount that. Between the emotional trauma and the embarrassment and the massive amount of good he has done in his 4 years at Notre Dame, I am willing to reserve some of my vilification for the obvious wrongs he did commit. He was the victim more than the perpetrator here. Maybe he should have been more suspicious in the first place; I’m sure he will be from now on. Maybe I’m too soft. But I think he needs support and understanding more than the BS he’s getting from everyone right now.
Maybe I say this because I can understand; I’m a very trusting, maybe even somewhat naive, romanticizing person. I can easily put myself in his shoes. I would be embarrassed as hell about telling the national media how I fell so hard for someone I had never met in person. Then, if a tragedy was getting me so much attention, I’d probably run with it and exaggerate the details a bit too. It’s not right, but it’s understandable. I think he just needs a little bit of understanding. Then in a week or so, a good tongue-lashing for what he did. Maybe instead of a real, live girlfriend, he should find a good, solid mentor. He is, after all, still just a kid.