By now it seems like everyone and their fake online girlfriend has written something about the Manti Te’o/Lennay Kekua scandal, but I still feel the need to throw my helmet in the ring.
Since the news of the scandal broke last week, all that’s been talked about is whether Te’o was complicit in the trickery or was just a victim of someone else’s cruel ploy. The evidence points strongly to the latter, but the more we find out about this hoax the less I care about the evidence.
Because either way, I feel really, really bad for Manti Te’o.
The media has such a chip on its shoulder for missing this story — rather, unknowingly misreporting it — for several months that it’s determined to pin down the truth, once and for all. That’s the media’s job. Even the analysts are playing judge on this one, and if there’s any sympathy expressed for Te’o it always comes packaged with the token “if he’s telling the truth.”
That skepticism has, as it often is, been passed on to the public. But here at Stanford — one of the 13 teams Te’o played against this season, and a school that was supposedly Kekua’s alma mater — 99 percent of us had never heard of Te’o’s girlfriend until a week ago. Most of us at The Daily, even within the sports section, had never heard the name “Lennay Kekua.” So why do so many of the people I talk to feel angry at Te’o or almost offended by this whole thing? You can’t be misled if you weren’t led in the first place, so even if Te’o was lying all along it really isn’t a personal matter for any of us.
But it is a profoundly personal matter for Manti Te’o, which is why this story, regardless of what you believe his part was in the proceedings, is flat-out sad.
We know that Te’o had been lying since December, when he received a phone call from Lennay several months after she had supposedly died. This came just two days before the Heisman Trophy ceremony, when Te’o’s story was getting as much coverage as ever. How could you expect a kid our age, fresh off the shock of discovering someone he loved never really existed, to come clean and just ask for widespread embarrassment during his first significant foray into the national spotlight, after he had done nothing wrong himself?
And over the next month, as Notre Dame prepared to play in the BCS Championship Game, it would’ve been nothing short of selfish for Te’o to come forward and draw attention away from his team’s accomplishments that season and its national title hopes. So to avoid that distraction, he had to knowingly continue the very farce that had turned his life upside down for well over a month, all the while knowing the story could come out at any moment, as it did last week. If that’s not poetic injustice, I don’t know what is.
(What’s lost in this is that Te’o’s crowning achievement — playing through the death of his grandmother and girlfriend on the same day — is no less impressive now than it was then, because he truly believed Lennay was dead.)
Let’s turn back the timetable a little bit, to the only other lie we know for sure Te’o has told: He admitted recently that he had never met Lennay in person despite having led his parents to believe otherwise. I know that public figures such as Te’o submit their personal lives for scrutiny — especially when they continue to tell their story, as Te’o did — but would you really like the last innocent lie you told your parents to become national news?
It’s also been suggested that Te’o, a Samoan, Mormon football player at a Catholic university, was sheltered when it came to his love life, and that he was somehow at fault for falling for this whole thing. I am honestly not qualified to discuss those cultural stigmas, but love isn’t something you’re taught — it’s something you feel. And if Manti Te’o says he loved Lennay Kekua, that’s good enough for me.
We’ve all been blinded by love before, made fools of ourselves. The sad part is that when it happened to Manti Te’o, it became the whole world’s business.
And as for the few holdouts who still believe Te’o was complicit in the hoax? If you believe that’s truly the case, you’re saying that one of the best defenders in the country — and Te’o was considered as such even before this season — playing for the most scrutinized team in college football still found the need to attract more attention for himself. You’re saying that such a skilled player was forced to live an extended lie and tell it to teammates, family and friends, for the sake of the Heisman, the NFL, whatever.
If that’s the pressure college athletes are put under, that’s as sad as anything.
Joseph Beyda was the one who posed as an NCAA rep and hired Nevin Shapiro’s lawyer. If you don’t understand the joke, email him at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu or follow him on Twitter at @DailyJBeyda.