It’s incredibly difficult for me to believe that a grown man would spend almost three years of his life referring to a woman whose face he’d never seen, other than in pictures, as his girlfriend. However, the people with whom I associate and know best are well-educated. They come from middle-class backgrounds. If they have religious affiliations, they’re nominal at best. Most of my friends are computer savvy, and all of them are cynical. At the very least, they exercise enough critical-thinking to avoid internet scams and, for the most part, the scrupulous schemes of others.
They’re not 22-year-old Mormons. They didn’t grow up in Hawaii. They didn’t attend a private academy where they did well scholastically and excelled at football. They weren’t recruited by more than 30 collegiate programs, and they didn’t attend Notre Dame university on an athletic scholarship. They didn’t win a slew of awards in their senior year, and they certainly didn’t finish second in Heisman Trophy voting. It’s highly unlikely that a tear-stained athletic director ever had to stop a press conference so that he could find enough composure to say, “The thing I am most sad of, sad about is that the single most trusting human being I’ve ever met will never be able to trust in the same way again in his life.”
None of them are Manti Te’o. I’m not Manti Te’o. You’re not Manti Te’o. No one is Manti Te’o, but Manti Te’o.
Manti Te’o’s explanation for Deadspin’s outstanding report, which revealed that the Notre Dame linebacker’s purportedly dead girlfriend – a story that gripped many in the United States – never actually existed, is simple: He was the victim of a hoax. That the hoax shares a curious similarity to a reality television series on MTV, based on a successful indie movie, is perhaps unfortunate, maybe telling, but it’s his explanation nonetheless.
This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.
In a press conference on Wednesday evening, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick confirmed that coaches were informed by Te’o and his parents on December 26th that the star player had been victimized by what appeared to be a hoax.
Someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia. The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.
Swarbrick, seemingly attempting to prove himself as unfamiliar with reality as possible, claimed that “the people who will be least skeptical of this are the people who live their life in the social media as an important component of it.” He forgot to add, “but not through Skype or other video chat applications.”
In truth, it’s the social media mavens who will be the most difficult to convince. On Twitter and Facebook, questions about the misrepresentation of Te’o’s relationship with the fictional woman that he never met – and yet had no difficulty speaking of her and her family often in interviews – have already led some to assume that not only was he in on the hoax, but that he perpetrated it to perhaps hide his sexuality from his religious family. Another angle suggested that the story was meant to contribute to his status as a Heisman Trophy candidate and a potential early first round pick in the upcoming National Football League draft. The story, prior to today’s revelation, certainly didn’t hurt either of those endeavors.
But to judge and convict him with such unproven motivations in mind only serves to bring us back to assumptions based on our own experiences that don’t match those of Te’o’s. What may seem obvious to us isn’t obvious to all. There’s a sheltering of sorts that takes place in social media. We follow and interact with people of like-minds to the point of imagining our similar mindset and common perspective to be far more widespread than it actually is. In this sense, Te’o’s version of this story may be more believable than any of us actually believe.
At this point, it’s still a complicated and moving narrative, full of discoveries yet to be made. There’s stuff like this, that’s only now coming to the surface:
My fam & I have an idea who the guy is behind the @lennaykay profile & hes up there leading a worship band at his dad’s church! SMFH
— jay.R (@jayRahz) December 4, 2012
There are not several facets to this story. There are several stories to this story. One of these is the Notre Dame’s handling of the affair, specifically, not contacting law enforcement authorities after learning of the hoax. Another is of the media’s coverage of the Lennay Kekua story, both before and after a website revealed so many assumed reports to be untrue. And yet another story – the one that we’ve all been most focused on – is Manti Te’o.
The one and only Manti Te’o, at whom it’s been decided it’s best to point fingers of blame. After all, this is what our expression of doubt over Te’o's claims is all about: We don’t want to be made to look foolish by means of a hoodwink. That would be unbelievably embarrassing.