Manti Te’o: Reflections and more questions


A week after Deadspin broke the news that the most heart-wrenching story of the college football season — the tragically shortened romance between Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o and leukemia-stricken girlfriend Lennay Kekua — was in fact a massive hoax put over on media and football fans alike, we still have more questions than answers about just what happened and who all was involved.

Yes, I’m aware that three days after the Deadspin report Te’o gave a marathon interview to ESPN in which he denied taking part in the Lennay Kekua hustle. And I also see that in the following days friends and associates have materialized to patch the various holes in any theory that purports to absolve Te’o of complicity in this mess. And if you’re into stories that don’t make sense, and explanations that fail to address central questions, I guess what has emerged from Team Te’o these last few days will satiate some of your curiosity.

The rest of us will see Te’o for what he seems to be:

A guy caught in a giant lie who would rather cop to being the dumbest and most self-absorbed boyfriend on the planet than admit he played a role in duping a nation of college football fans.

Te’o claims Lennay was the love of his life, but also says that during her alleged illness — a time during which he says he believed completely in her existence — he never visited her in hospital.

Why not?

“It never really crossed my mind,” he told ESPN. “I don’t know. I was in school.”

TeoLennay

Maybe I have unrealistic standards, but I’m ever hospitalized for four months I hope it would occur to the love of my life to stop by and say hi. I’d even settle for the love of the moment, but I digress.

I’m not here to discuss the depth of my skepticism toward any explanation that doesn’t have Te’o near the centre of this scam, nor enumerate Te’o’s possible motives for concocting this drama. Fabulists have always existed and always will, even in sport (see: Litton, Kip and Ryan, Paul). And unless an earth-shattering revelation emerges from the next flurry of interviews I’ll believe Te’o is the latest in an endless line of people who seek attention through sensational stories.

But this whole saga has raised a couple of questions for me. They’re far from rock-solid conclusions, and I don’t believe these ideas the way I believe Te’o collaborated in the creation and promotion of the Lennay tale. I just wonder about a few things,

The afternoon the story broke, several observers wondered out loud whether Te’o invented this phony girlfriend to keep loved ones from wondering if he was gay.

That theory never occurred to me, mainly because there are much easier ways to hide something like that.

“I’m too busy to date.”

“I’m too busy playing around to settle down.”

“I’m a Mormon on a Catholic campus. Not many ladies here for me.”

But as I watch this situation develop other questions linger.

1. Would I have fallen for the same fake story if I were covering Te’o?

It’s easy to say I wouldn’t have, and the days since the Deadspin scoop have seen journalists across the internet pass harsh judgement on every scribe ensnared in this trumped-up story.

Which is normal and natural, and nobody is suggesting we let sloppy journalism slide.

But criticism is easy. Honest self-assessment is something else.

Four months removed from Te’o’s first big lie to the mainstream media — my girlfriend died the same day as my grandmother — I can say  I wouldn’t have bought his tale.

He claims to have argued with Lennay on the morning she died about whether or not to skip the Michigan game to attend her funeral, a detail I think would have set off an alarm immediately.

Why would a living human being know the details of their funeral a week in advance? And why would somebody hours away from dying of leukemia have the strength and mental sharpness to argue about anything? If you’ve lost loved ones to cancer — the way Te’o really did lose his grandmother — you know those final few days you’re lucky if the patient can open their eyes, much less talk… much less argue… about an event they can’t possibly know is coming.

In January 2013 I think I would have hammered away at that detail until I found a satisfying answer, then either exposed the inconsistency or at least held off on publishing the heart-warming story until I could verify it.

But if it’s September 2012 and I’m a beat writer on a tight deadline and I come across this jewel of an anecdote, it just might make the story. Not because I’m an underhanded journalist, but simply because deadlines are unforgiving, this business is competitive and in that situation you have no reason to suspect a kid is telling a lie so big about something so important.

teo-cover-resize

As Deadspin editor-in-chief Tommy Craggs makes plain in this interview with Poynter, story-a-day-grinders aren’t the only writers who dropped the ball here. So did magazine journalists with the time and resources to make sure the story checked out.

Different classes of journalist deserve different classes of scrutiny in this case.

I like to think I would have avoided all drama by sniffing out a shaky story in real time, or at least distanced myself from Te’o’s claims by peppering my copy with the words “Te’o says.”  But with deadlines tightening and pressure rising constantly for newspaper journalists, I can’t be sure.

And if you’re honest, maybe you can’t either.

2. Is this kid mentally ill?

And if so, what’s next for him?

I’m not trying to diagnose Te’o. I know a little bit about a lot of things, but admit I’m no shrink. But when somebody constructs and spreads a tale as tall as Te’o’s I wonder if the act is driven by a condition mental health professionals can identify and treat.

For all the progress the pro sports world, and football in particular, has made in confronting the reality of brain trauma, there’s still a lingering sense that mental health issues aren’t health issues at all.

Two years ago then-Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall revealed he had been diagnosed with and treated for borderline personality disorder, making him one of a very few active pro athletes to make public his struggle with a condition trainers can’t treat with ice and tape and anti-inflammatories.

At some point organizations and sports media will realize mental disorders demand the same attention and intervention as physical injuries, for the good of both the athlete and his or her team. Forcing an athlete into action with an unchecked case of anxiety or depression isn’t any more reasonable or safe than sending him into a game with a mangled knee.

Just ask Mike Shanahan and Robert Griffin III.

RGIIIKnee

Or ask the Houston Rockets, who have issued an indefinite suspension to their first-round draft pick, Royce White, as the team and the player try to figure out how best to manage the anxiety disorder that has anchored him to the sideline all season.

You can be sure that before an NFL team invests a draft pick and an eight-figure contract in Te’o they’ll investigate both the veracity of his claims and his mental health. Yes, NFL teams are raking in more cash than ever, but that doesn’t mean they want to spend it on a player who might have emotional issues that may keep him out of action (see: White, Royce).

Best case scenario Te’o’s laughably gullible. Worst case scenario he’s a sociopath. Either outcome could cost him a lot of cash on draft day. But if he really does suffer from some type of mental illness, doing nothing about it will cost him even more in the long term.

Again, not saying for sure that this is what’s happening. Just saying that it’s worth investigating for everyone involved.

Follow Morgan Campbell on Twitter.

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