Manti Teo

“The truth is even stranger than fiction…”

Almost twenty-four hours later, the world is still at odds on how to come to grips about the hoax suroounding Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and the supposed girlfriend of his who died in September following a battle with leukemia. Within a matter of hours, one article posted on Deadspin with extensive and thorough research not only caved the story which had brought sympathy and compassion to the star linebacker but forced his former university to call for a hasty press conference and reference the hit MTV-show Catfish.

And no one, not even I could begin to piece together how wildly sensational yet captivating this story is on a number of levels. I could foolishly attempt to cover them all but the key ones that stick out include:

– a lack of journalistic action by news sources including ESPN, The New York Times & CBS who used the anecdote from Te’o and Notre Dame as part of their coverage of the college football season.
– the numerous plot holes and questionable statements made not only by Notre Dame but by Te’o himself regarding his girlfriend. (His statement regarding the hoax)
– the surreality of this concerning the star player of arguably college football’s most despised team media wise which also raises a litany of questions thanks to their brand’s perceived “myth building”.
– how we view news stories in a digital age.

The last one is the most blanket inquisition of them all, a sort of open wound that items such as Twitter and text messaging has continued to tug open as time passes. The moment sites such as TMZ, Media Takeout and others rose up from the creative ash, this is where we were headed with sports. It makes it seem so bizarre these days that a scandal so grossly polarizing as cyclist Lance Armstrong admitting to Oprah Winfrey that he in fact, did use performance-enhancing drugs in his sport almost a mere footnote to Te’o’s, years after we as sports fans had been waiting for the other shoe to finally drop.

Human emotion always draws in viewership, readers and people with varying beliefs, that we’ve always known. It could always shift whatever the lead happened to be on SportsCenter on a given night.

But this?

manti-te'o

To sort of mock death to either build a story? To make it seem like sports, life’s most unpredictable drama is more Hollywood than even we make it? Not even a barb quite like Shakespeare could cast an atmosphere this murky and spellbinding.

Te’o has already been painted as the victim of a cruel travesty according to Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick who pretty much with pointed glasses and contradicting statements of his own not only pulled a Donald Rumsfield in explaining the Te’o situation (that grand ol’ “we don’t know what we don’t know/unknown unkown” statement) but also fully committed to it hook, line and sinker with near tears and everything, painting Te’o as “the most trusting human being he’s ever met”. Mind you, this isn’t a child we’re dealing with here – rather an adult who may or may not have been manipulated to push an agenda that at the end of the day makes absolutely no sense.

For Notre Dame to immediately stand behind someone who played his last meaningful down for them in a National Championship game is showing one thing we almost always knew about ND – they protect the image of their football team no matter what.

There was no hasty press conference for Declan Sullivan, a 20-year old ND student who died falling from a scaffolding taping the football team’s practice. No alarm was sounded when another student, Lizzy Seeberg, recently documented in a Sports Illustrated article committed suicide amid pressure from charges not being brought up for her alleged sexual assault at an off-campus party by a Notre Dame football player.

But this isn’t a full brigade on Notre Dame’s moral standing, especially that of its football program. It’s more geared at how truly bizarre times we live in – where the idea of someone getting “Catfish’d” has even brought show creator Nëv Schulman into the picture wanting to solve things himself.

There were meetings set up between Te’o and the love of his life according to Swarbrick. She missed every single one. I don’t even think we needed Nev and those MTV cameras around to figure that something was amiss.

Thanks to how we view stories such as death and family tragedy, nobody among the big networks covering Te’o all season decided to dive deeper into the story regarding his girlfriend’s death. The death of his grandmother on September 11th, 2012 was enough. That, is a loss most of us will experience over time, the severity of it doesn’t make most ESPN headlines or get a feature slot on their College Gameday program. Losing both your girlfriend and your grandmother in the same week? Instant gravitation.

Then the dates got flimsy. Then the story just built a life of its own and certain fact checking aspects were completely forgotten. Forgotten that is, until Deadspin did something that doesn’t get noticed much these days in an era where a “source” can pretty much make or break a big story – research. Gene Wojciechowski, who interviewed Te’o in a piece for ESPN in October found no information regarding the girlfriend’s death. No obituary, no news clipping of a car accident and thought of the privacy of the family. Plausible. The fact that Notre Dame conducted its own investigation on December 26th regarding the situation after a suspicious phone call also raises a few eyebrows with the school stating they were going to release the report in a few days until Deadspin broke the story today.

And then another part of me jumps out and raises questions.

You mean to tell us in this society that Te’o got into an online relationship with this girl and didn’t Skype her? That she wrote you a letter a MONTH after she supposedly died? That as a college student for the first three years of his time at Notre Dame, women weren’t in the mood to date arguably the school’s best player? And there’s a guy from the Arizona Cardinals who says he met Manti’s “girlfriend” before Manti did and said she had the body of a volleyball player and was pretty much trying to get “chose” at football parties? And after AJ McCarron basically had his GF put on by ESPN literally, does everybody need to in Twitter terms “@ your him/her” to avoid the potential craziness and embarrassment?

Just … what the hell?

I will also give him the same amount of rope that we’re all given apparently in this new world where moral judgement is placed at a premium among sports stars, especially those with religious backgrounds. The more the story begins to unravel and spiral out like a broken Slinky, the more questions we’re going to raise.

At least we know Deadspin might get a Pulizter for reporting. And Manti Te’o might get drafted in the first round by the Buffalo Bills.

Just know he’s a part of arguably the year’s most bizarre story, sports or otherwise.

About The Author

Brandon Caldwell is the founder & editor-in-chief of Day & A Dream. His work has appeared in VIBE, UPROXX, Complex, EBONY, the Village Voice, the Houston Press, Houston Style Magazine, DJBooth, The Sports Fans Journal, and more. Follow him on Twitter: @_brandoc