At a party over the weekend, somebody asked me: Why does anybody still care about this stupid Manti Te’o story? I said something about how every story is a combination of important and interesting, and the Te’o story is a 0 on the Important scale, but on the Interesting scale, it’s a solid 9.
That wasn’t the best answer. I always think of a better one about five minutes after the other person leaves. Here’s the five-minute-later answer:
We’re still not at the point where we should be sure about anything in the story; read this Deadspin archive of tweets among the major characters, and see if you can keep track of who’s real and who’s fake. But the best-case scenario at this point is that Te’o believed he had a loving girlfriend despite many strong clues that she did not exist. Which would make him, among other things, delusional.
Good thing nobody else involved with college football is delusional.
To love college football -- and I do -- you have to swallow several large delusions before breakfast every morning. Pretty much everybody involved with the sport has to do the same.
Some university presidents keep pouring money into football even though it sinks their athletic departments deeper into the red.
Some boosters spread dirty money around even though they risk putting the schools they love on probation.
Almost all the players sacrifice their bodies even though the rewards might never equal the pain.
Many marginal players blow off their studies even though their chance to play in the NFL is next to zero.
Some teachers and deans conspire to keep players eligible even though it violates their professional codes.
A lot of coaches keep a suitcase packed for a better job even though it makes cynics out of the players they preached to about loyalty.
Many journalists (and their publications) settle for the easy story even though it makes them look like fools when somebody finally does the hard work of reporting.
And countless fans turn the games into an obsession even though it robs them of their health, social life, perspective and good sense.
In that context, Manti Te’o seems like a fairly normal guy.
These delusions aren’t unique to sports; we do something similar when it comes to politicians, preachers, talk-show hosts and movie stars. And there’s a reason we let ourselves be tricked -- the goodness and beauty at the heart of sports can be more powerful than all the craziness and corruption that surround it.
Too bad it’s such a damn steeplechase to get to that kernel of truth.
What happens next? Who knows. Katie Couric is interviewing Te’o, and she will make him cry. There will be more revelations, and we will eventually get to some version of the truth, because we’ve come too far not to. But that could be a long way down the road.
The other day, a story bubbled up from memory. It ran in The New Yorker seven years ago. It’s about a Massachusetts psychiatrist -- a smart, educated man -- who fell for one of those Nigerian email scams. You’ve seen those emails. You’ve thought the same thing I have: How stupid would you have to be to fall for that?
The psychiatrist ended up losing more than $40,000 and being convicted of bank fraud (he tried to cash fake checks from the Nigerians). The story mentioned other victims, including a former congressman from Iowa. The scammers are brilliant. They build trust. They pretend to give as well as take. Most of all, they make the mark believe that what he or she is doing is important. It’s not just about getting rich. It’s about being a part of something bigger than yourself.
That sounds a lot like Manti Te’o longing for his invisible girlfriend. It also sounds like the rest of us, painting a beautiful picture of college football to hide what’s down deep in the canvas.
We all put up with our share of delusions, when we feel like we need to.
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Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tommytomlinson.