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Notre Dame let Te'o down amid hoax

Image: Manti Te'o (© Ryan Jones/AP)
Did Notre Dame leave Manti Te'o when he needed the school the most?
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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If Manti Te’o is everything that Notre Dame says he is, everything that led athletic director Jack Swarbrick to tears in describing him as a trusting soul who will never trust the same way again, then Te’o deserved more.

He deserved more from Notre Dame. School officials went right into crisis management mode, but acted as if the crisis were Notre Dame’s, not Te’o’s. The university acted less interested in its troubled student than in its own image, its bloated semi-fictional legends and its national championship game.

What did Notre Dame officials do? They kicked the can down the road for a while until it wasn’t their problem anymore. They were one game short of a fairy tale season after all.

Notre Dame wanted to protect its fairy tales. It needed to protect Manti Te’o, not Rudy and the Gipper. It gave him bad advice because everyone was prioritizing the BCS Championship Game more than the player most responsible for getting the Irish there, the player who came to them with a problem.

His problem, not theirs.

Notre Dame hired investigators to look into Te’o’s situation, but said it wouldn’t reveal what was uncovered. That seemed odd at the time, but not after the South Bend Tribune uncovered how paper-thin that investigation really was.

This is lesson No. 5,000 why college athletes need to be able to have agents, or at least some form of representation. I’ve changed my mind about this over the years, but the truth is that no one is looking out for the athlete first.

No one.

Notre Dame has its own TV network because it has Rudy, which is mostly a story of fiction. It has the Gipper, a story highly distorted. It already has had to handle several problems jeopardizing its legends, including the death of a kid who was videotaping a practice for the team on a scissor lift in dangerously high winds, and also a sexual assault allegation that included a young woman committing suicide.

Somehow, these issues disappeared without consequence to Notre Dame football.

Te’o was giving Notre Dame another legend. Suddenly, he was a problem.

In the movie “The Social Network,’’ Mark Zuckerberg manipulates Facebook co-founder and friend Eduardo Saverin out of his share of the company after Saverin signs papers with company lawyers. Asked later why he didn’t get his own lawyers, Saverin said it was incredibly stupid, but he thought those were, in fact, his lawyers.

Te’o thought Notre Dame was, in fact, his representation.

If Te’o was the victim in this girlfriend hoax, then he entrusted Notre Dame to help him. Who else could he go to?

The story is that he told Notre Dame officials on Dec. 26 that he might be the victim of a hoax. At that point, Te’o said, he still wasn’t sure if his Internet/phone call girlfriend, who had called him nearly three months after he thought she had died, was alive or dead, or had ever existed. Or maybe this was some sort of new, cruel joke on him.

In the one interview Te’o’s new, professional handlers have allowed him to give, to ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, Te’o said that he had called coach Brian Kelly that day to explain his problem.

“Coach Kelly just said 'She’s dead,’’’ Te’o said. “'That’s how we’re going to go about it. She’s dead. When you come in, we’ll talk about it.' That’s all he said.’’

Kelly might well have been trying to protect Te’o. But 21 days passed before Deadspin.com broke the story that his girlfriend was a hoax. There is no way that anyone looking out for Te’o would have allowed it to drag on that long, or allowed Deadspin to break the story and control the narrative.

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In that time, Notre Dame held meetings, talked to Te’o, went to big bosses to decide what to do. Then, it hired a private investigator rather than going to official authorities. The investigator produced a report three days before the championship game. Notre Dame informed Te’o’s parents of the report the next day. And then?

Notre Dame sat on it until after the title game. And when the championship game was over, it said that Te’o was now in the hands of his agent, Creative Artists Agency.

He was someone else’s problem.

On the night that Deadspin broke the story, I asked Swarbrick why Notre Dame hadn’t gone to authorities instead of launching a private investigation. A young woman was alive, then dead, then alive again? How do you reconcile all of that with not going to authorities?

“There’s lot of confusion,’’ Swarbrick said. “There didn’t appear to be a death; the evidence was a little bit to the contrary. We asked the questions of people involved in the consideration of what the best steps were.

“Was there apparent criminal activity here? At that point, it was hard to identify any. A cruel, cruel hoax, but unfortunately, cruel hoaxes don’t necessarily accelerate the criminal activity.’’

The South Bend Tribune reported that the investigation Notre Dame ordered was limited to an electronic search, and that no one interviewed Te’o or his family, or attempted to reach Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the suspected mastermind of the hoax, or any of his family members.

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The investigation also, the paper said, did not examine cell phone records, emails or other electronic communication that Te’o said he had with the person claiming to be his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua.

Te’o is now in the hands of his agent Tom Condon of Creative Artists Agency. I already disagree with his handling of Te’o. A private, no-cameras interview with one questioner at ESPN? That is too many conditions. It looks suspicious and manipulated.

On Thursday, Te’o will give his first on-camera interview to Katie Couric. How about 60 Minutes?

It’s all about image, and always was. And it’s so crafted now, that no one is buying in. But one thing is sure: The handling is done by someone whose one and only focus is Manti Te’o.

It’s as if Rudy doesn’t even exist.

Tagged: Notre Dame, Buffalo, Brian Kelly

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