I’m not ready to believe Manti Te’o. Not yet. Lance Armstrong’s confessional with Oprah this week reminds us that some people lie long after it makes sense to tell the truth. And the story Te’o and Notre Dame told Wednesday, through two prepared statements and one news conference, leaves a stack of unanswered questions. Journalists across the country feel like suckers for buying the story of the linebacker’s girlfriend. Until Deadspin, none of them checked the facts. They’ll damn sure check the facts now.
But let’s take the other road. Let’s agree to believe, at least for the next few minutes, that Manti Te’o was the victim of a hoax that lasted more than three years. If you believe that, and you think about what it means, you can reduce it to a single image:
A star football player, alone in his room at night, texting his love to a girlfriend he’s never met.
The man and the act don’t go together. Te’o is handsome, strong, polished, the most popular student on the Notre Dame campus. He could walk across the South Quad and find a date for the night in five minutes. That doesn’t mean he’d find a soulmate. But he’d have a better chance than any other man in South Bend.
Instead, if you believe his story, he did the kind of thing lonely people do when they’re out of options. For more than three years, he had a relationship online with someone he knew as Lennay Kekua. In at least some versions of the story, he met her in person after a Stanford-Notre Dame game. Notre Dame’s athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, now says Te’o never met his girlfriend in person. He left it to Te’o, who’s supposed to speak Thursday, to resolve that contradiction.
In every version of the story, he falls for Kekua. They talk so long on the phone at night that they fall asleep with the line still open. She writes him letters before every game. They text and tweet. They bond, deeply. She has a car accident, then is diagnosed with leukemia. The last time they speak, she says she loves him. On Sept. 12, the same day Te’o finds out that his grandmother has died, Kekua dies, too.
(Sadly, I should make clear that the part about his grandmother is true.)
All this, if you believe Te’o and Notre Dame, is an unspeakably cruel trick. They say Te’o was catfished -- duped by somebody who uses social media to create a false identity. Swarbrick says Te’o didn’t know anything was wrong until he got a call from the number he knew as Kekua’s -- and it was her, saying she hadn’t died after all.
Stop right there for a second, keep believing that Te’o is telling the truth, and think about that moment. He fell in love with a woman who died before he ever got to touch her. Then she called him from the grave.
The Deadspin story paints a different picture. Their story traces the nonexistent “Lennay Tekua” online identity to a guy named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who is an acquaintance of Te’o. Deadspin quotes an unnamed friend of Tuiasosopo’s as saying Te’o was probably in on the hoax, and created it for publicity. Take that last part for what it’s worth -- it’s shaky sourcing in a story that otherwise seems nailed down.
If Te’o is just a liar, we know what to do with liars. He can stand in front of the cameras and cry. He can claim it was a joke that got out of hand. He can promise to be a better man. He can start a foundation. He’ll be a first-round draft pick, and five years from now, if a few stragglers still heckle him, it won’t seem fair.
But what if his problem isn’t deception? What if it’s staggering loneliness, crippling awkwardness, the false comfort of choosing text on a screen over a heart beating beside him?
“The most beautiful girl I’ve ever met,” Te’o called the girl he never really met.
There are so many threads to untangle. The hoax theory is full of holes. Deadspin couldn’t reach any of the principals in its story. Te’o hasn’t spoken in public yet. In ESPN's story, a running back for the Arizona Cardinals says he actually met Lennay Kekua. She might exist? Good Lord.
We don’t know some of the who, much of the what, most of the how or any of the why. What we do know is that most of us will be a little less trusting after this. We’ll look at the world with a more jaded eye. All those things are good for us, I suppose. But they don’t feel good.
And I’m not sure any of them get to the real story of Manti Te’o.
As the story exploded Wednesday afternoon, I sent out a tweet:
Either he made it all up, or the girlfriend he really loved and mourned was somebody he'd never met. Not sure which one is sadder.
My friend Emily tweeted back the truth:
Yes you do.
Yes, I do.