We all saw this coming. Well, not ALL of this — but enough to make too many of us shudder. Notre Dame is not like most schools with big-time athletic programs — our student body population pales in comparison to other large schools. And what does that mean? Well, word spreads fast on Notre Dame’s campus, and many students knew a long time ago that there was something very fishy (or should I say, cat-fishy) about Manti Te’o’s relationship with ‘Lennay Kekua’.
When the story broke in mid-September that Manti lost his grandmother and girlfriend in a 24-hour period, the student body was shocked. Manti Te’o is truly a class act — it’s something that we have all seen first-hand over and over. I have seen him work hard in the classroom. I have seen him be ever-so-gracious with children that see him on campus. I have seen him be a great friend and person in general — not a soul that meets him comes away without being impressed. His manners would make any mother blush and he goes to mass with Tim Tebow-like regularity — he truly seems like the kind of guy that you’d want your daughter to marry someday. So when we heard the tragic news, the student body supported him in a manner that made national news.
Yet, even before the Michigan State game, Manti Te’o was being questioned by his teammates. Apparently Manti had only “seen” Lennay once — but I assume “seen” was a rather loose term used for “chatted with online” (however, this is extremely complicated to understand since they were reportedly talking since 2009, according to the Te’o family). The debate among teammates wasn’t whether or not Manti actually knew this girl — it was clear that they had been in contact; no, players just didn’t think that it was fair to call Lennay Kekua Manti’s girlfriend, period (it is well-known on campus that he has had relations with other girls during his time at Notre Dame). They recognized what was going on for what it was — a terrible publicity stunt used to fuel Manti Te’o’s Heisman campaign. In fact, many of the players privately commented that they didn’t want the students to wear leis in support of Manti and wouldn’t participate themselves — they cited that the team never responded so publicly to tragic events for other players. But there was also the feeling that Manti didn’t deserve to benefit from publicity from the death of somebody he barely knew.
Manti must have known how beneficial this publicity would be in a season that marked Notre Dame’s return to the national elite, and one that also put him squarely in the Heisman race. As a defensive player, you can’t win the prestigious award without exceptional circumstances — and here one had conveniently fallen into his lap. So he went with it, fed off of it, and it riveted the nation. Love for Manti Te’o exceeded that of any player I have ever seen, and even non-Irish fans hailed him as an inspiration. And here’s where it all gets even trickier.
Manti knew that it was over-the-top — his teammates had gotten that sense a long time prior. And now he was in too deep. More and more questions were asked about this fascinating story, and he kept answering them, calling Kekua “the love of his life”, even though he was digging a deeper and deeper hole for himself. And it didn’t help that his family, and specifically his father, Brian Te’o, was also talking about the incident, or lying as it appears.
And yet, despite all of this, I genuinely believe Manti was duped, I truly do. I think Manti was fooled, got caught in a media frenzy and exaggerated their “relationship”. I don’t, however, think he orchestrated the deception. He made the mistake of running with the story rather than admitting the truth about the situation. He should have gotten away from this story at the very start — when she “passed”, he should have expressed his condolences to the family that he believed she had and moved on, rather than draw more attention to it.
One thing that Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick made clear in his press conference is that he 100% believes Manti Te’o had feelings for this girl, and Manti is the perfect target for a trap like this because he truly cares about others. I have, like many others, met Manti Te’o, and numerous times. I believe he is a genuinely good guy. He came back to Notre Dame for his senior year to make a difference in the community and to be a positive role model to others. And it’s easy to see how he would be compelled to help this girl and make her a substantial part of his life.
More and more evidence is coming out that seems to indicate that there was a clear intent by some sick people to trick Manti Te’o. Whether they were in it just for the cruel pleasure of fooling a famous figure or if they would have eventually attempted to blackmail Te’o for money once he made the NFL is unclear. But what Notre Dame firmly believes is that Manti Te’o was close enough with this girl to be hurt at her death, which he believed to be legitimate. And Te’o really knew something was wrong when she later “came back from the dead” to message him. Something was very, very wrong — he had been played.
Now here’s the thing. While I believe Manti Te’o to have an incredibly good heart and to have gotten duped, I will also be quick to point out that he oversold all of this drama in the first place. It was heinous of him to play up a relationship as the love of his life for a girl he had never actually met — I think most people can agree that is ridiculous. And I think Notre Dame had to have some knowledge of the the whole case being significantly embellished but was on board because of the positive press and hype it brought to the university. Could it have been a massive oversight and university officials just took Manti at his word that it was his girlfriend? Absolutely, but I like to think my school’s athletic department is a little smarter than that — it has shown itself to be quite media savvy in the past. I think that Te’o, his family, and Notre Dame all knew what was going on in terms of hyperbole (but not the entire non-existence) and decided to go with it, never expecting the truth to come out.
Ultimately, the best thing about this is that nobody got hurt. This is extremely embarrassing for everyone involved, especially Manti Te’o if he was truly duped like I believe. While he should be ashamed about accepting the press that he did, this was not a scandal where victims were physically abused, caught cheating, or found dead. It was a massive series of lies that kept growing and growing. Plenty of people had an idea that something was going on — as soon as players found out, it slowly leaked to their friends, and their friends’ friends. But it all went left unsaid because nobody but Manti and the Lennay Kekua imposters truly knew the full reality of their relationship.
Later today we expect to hear Manti’s side of the story — whether it will reveal the whole truth remains to be seen. But I expect to see a heartbroken and crestfallen Te’o for two reasons: I believe he was duped into thinking Lennay Kekua existed and is now publicly humiliated for that, and furthermore, I think he realizes his chance to be an icon who makes a positive difference is really hanging in the balance.
Knowing Manti, I hope that it comes out that all he did was lie to get more press than he needed. That is bad, but not unforgiveable, and if there’s one person whose history of good acts says he deserves a second chance, it’s Manti Te’o.