Jan 7, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te

What Can We Learn From the Manti Te'o Saga?

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Manti Te’o overkill is in full effect on Twitter and elsewhere. This is to be expected in the wake of such shocking allegations. If you missed it, Deadspin has revealed that Manti Te’o’s oft-discussed dead girlfriend Lennay Kekua, a young woman who became an integral part of the compelling Te’o backstory and indeed the entire Notre Dame 2012 narrative, never in fact existed. Deadspin shows how an entire false online identity was created and how Te’o became involved with this fictional person. More damningly, it shows how Te’o continued speaking of Kekua as a real woman even after he must’ve known there was no such individual. The story raises tons of questions: about Te’o’s character, about the Notre Dame myth, about how the media operate in the age of Twitter and Facebook.

Notre Dame and Te’o have already released their statements about the matter. In some ways these statements raise more questions than they answer. Both the college and Te’o are claiming the player was the victim of a hoax. Te’o speaks of his humiliation in falling for the deception. The university says they found out about the whole thing in December and have been investigating. The problem for Te’o is this: he has spoken so extensively about the non-existent woman that it becomes hard to believe he was totally unaware of her non-existence. It’s possible he was duped, initially, but at what point did he wise up? And why didn’t he come clean about the hoax after realizing what had happened? Was he merely a victim or a guilty perpetrator? Or a little of both?

Te’o may be innocent in this, but at this point there are too many things that don’t add up. The stain of guilt is on him, at least in the public eye. But rather than simply paint Te’o as a total villain, let’s try to look at this from his point-of-view. You’re a young man who has found himself in the center of a whole massive media-driven whirlwind. The Notre Dame story. The resurgence of this proud football program. You become the symbol of this whole stirring thing. The Te’o backstory becomes an integral part of the narrative. The dead grandmother. Then the fake girlfriend enters into it. The media run with this. It’s easy to say that Te’o should’ve come clean, but imagine the pressure on him. Imagine how he must have felt. Never mind the realities of trying to play football games every Saturday amid this insanity. It’s possible to see how he might have become swept up. Just been carried along by the irresistible momentum of the thing and not thought to try and stop it.

Not trying to excuse Te’o. But to what extent should we crush this kid for the way he acted? He was in the middle of something much, much bigger than himself. It’s easy to pile on him, call him a liar or at the very least a fool. But what about the media? They went along with his apparent lies. Why did they not look closer at this story? Was it their zeal to push the Notre Dame narrative? Are they so invested in selling these inspirational stories that they deliberately suspend journalistic responsibility? And what about the school? Where were they in all this? Were they just happy to have the positive attention? Should they have asked more questions?

This looks like a case of a snowball that got rolling downhill, and once it built up momentum, no one could stop it. Sadly, it appears no one WANTED to stop it. Not the school. Not the media. Maybe Te’o did, but by then it was too late. Now his character and integrity are being questioned. His draft stock may suffer. Let me say this. If Te’o is the only one to suffer the consequences from this story…that would be a shame. Because there are plenty of other people who deserve punishment. If this was a hoax perpetrated by others besides Te’o, they must be publicly exposed if not criminally prosecuted. The media must also be taken to task. So must Notre Dame. And we as media consumers must look ourselves in the eye and ask “Are we a little too gullible as well? Are we a little too willing to go along with a good story? Should we be more skeptical of what the media are putting out there?”

It’s easy to look at this as yet another example of a sick conspiracy between media, sports and the public to build people up out of all proportion with reality, then perversely revel in their demise once things take a turn. We did it with Barry Bonds. Lance Armstrong. Joe Paterno. Over and over the same thing. The desire to worship heroes trumps common sense. And then, when the heroes fall, we feel stupid for being duped. And we lash out against the figures at the center of the lies. But maybe we’re equally culpable. Maybe the answer is to stop making heroes out of sports figures at all and start finding real role models in the real world. There are plenty of them out there. And they don’t need the ESPN spin machine to make them seem heroic.

There will be much to chew on in the coming days and weeks. Hopefully this will lead to some positive change. More responsibility from the media. More healthy skepticism from the public. And more honesty from the institutions that benefit so much financially and otherwise from media fawning and fan blindness.

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