Whatever Te'o truth, another icon falls

Whatever Te'o truth, another icon falls

Published Jan. 16, 2013 12:00 a.m. ET

Every time we put an athlete on too high a pedestal, it burns us.

That’s what I wrote in October about Manti Te’o, while putting him on a high pedestal. I did it all season, about his play as a Notre Dame linebacker, about a letter he wrote to the grieving parents of a dying young girl in Michigan.

Te’o had told me privately after the Brigham Young game that he cried while writing that letter, which he didn’t make public until I asked about it: “Obviously, going through what I’ve gone through, with my girlfriend passing away from cancer, that whole thing hit home for me.’’

As you probably know, based on the story broken Wednesday by Deadspin, there was no girlfriend. She was a hoax. So was I burned? Did Te’o, as Deadspin implies, burn us all? Or was Te’o the one who was burned, as he and Notre Dame say? For sure, everyone acknowledges that Te’o’s girlfriend did not exist.


Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and now Te’o, too? I wish I could say that I’m sure, but I’m not. Don’t look for the definitive answer now, either, and don’t believe anyone who claims to have it. Not yet.

Te’o became a symbol this year about sports. You could still find good in them. You could still believe. This could be the end of that belief for good.

The Deadspin story, roughly, is that Te’o and his friend, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, set up a Twitter account for Te’o’s made-up girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, complete with photos of some woman. Why would someone make up a dying girlfriend? For attention, sympathy, Heisman votes, or who knows what?

The question is what level of friendship, if any, Te’o actually did have with Tuiasosopo. A source told me that Te’o says he’s not friends with Tuiasosopo. And if Te’o slept at night while on the phone with the woman posing as Kekua, as Te’o says, then he should be able to produce phone records showing it.

That could help to make his story look possible, anyway. He says that someone lured him into a fake relationship, and even faked a death.

We in the media are supposed to keep a level of skepticism, a BS-meter.

This one went right past me, I’ll admit. I should have known to look into it. But Te’o really did write that letter via email to the Smith family, whose daughter, Bridget, died the day it arrived. (Yes, the letter existed, and so did the daughter, and so does the state of Michigan. Bridget’s mother read the letter to me).

Does it take a healthy dose of skepticism to wonder if someone made up the death by leukemia of a girlfriend? Or does it take something more than that?

Deadspin makes a compelling case.

And Te’o definitely left the impression that he had at least met his girlfriend in person. How could he have never met her over three years?

Why didn’t he drop everything to go to her funeral, even if she supposedly told him not to? Why did his father tell reporters that they had met a few times in Hawaii? Why did Te’o say that he had met her at Stanford?

Actually, there are answers to all of those questions, but some of them make you feel stupid to believe.

Others do not.

A source close to Te’o said that he says he told his parents he was going to meet her, but then was too embarrassed to tell them when she never showed up. And when he “met’’ her at Stanford, he now says, he was saying he met her online.

BS meter going off.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said that Te’o was the perfect mark, with the people playing the trick on Te’o preying on his emotions and niceness:

“I don’t think it was an accident,’’ Swarbrick said. “They understood the more trouble she was in — car accident, dying of leukemia, failing health — the more engaged he would become.’’

That is Te’o’s story, that he felt that he did have a girlfriend, and that he was grieving when she died at roughly the same time his grandmother did.

“We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her,’’ Te’o said in a statement.

He is expected to speak publicly Thursday.

“To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.

“It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother’s death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life.’’

A documentary film and MTV show called “Catfish’’ describes that this type of situation does happen. Here is part of the Wikipedia entry about it: “A `catfish’ is a person who creates fake profiles online and pretends to be someone they are not by using someone else’s pictures and information. These `catfish’ use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, usually with the intention of getting other people or a person to fall in love with them.’’

The show’s host would try to help people determine if “the person they have had a relationship with and fallen in love with is the real deal or if they are a `catfish.’ Some couples have been together for a few months, others have been together for years.’’

Notre Dame didn’t help Te'o here. Swarbrick said that Te’o only figured out that his dead girlfriend was a hoax in December, when his phone rang and showed her number calling. Te’o answered to hear her voice telling him she was alive.

So, Swarbrick said, Te’o told Notre Dame officials Dec. 26, and they hired a private firm to investigate. They should have gone to official authorities, who could investigate and give a neutral, unbiased report.

They also should never have let the story break in Deadspin, but instead gone public with it immediately. It appears Notre Dame was trying to cover up, which doesn’t convey a sense of belief.

“You know,’’ Te’o wrote in his letter to the Smith family, “Bridget’s in a better place now. She’s with my girlfriend. There’s no better place to be.’’

Some people want something to believe in, and some want something to be snarky about. The burden of proof switches to Te’o now.