Did Manti Te’o Know Or Not?

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o | AP photo/Michael Conroy

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o | AP photo/Michael Conroy

“Rooting for (Ray) Lewis required nuance; rooting for (Manti) Te’o is easy.”

I wrote that sentence at the end of this column two weeks ago. It now reads like a foreign language.

Manti Te’o has been forever changed by the revelation that his apparent girlfriend was never real, that her highly publicized death never occurred, that the most heart-warming and inspirational story the college football season presented to us was a fairy tale.

First off, kudos to Deadspin for breaking this story. While I’ve personally heard the current media blitz – criticized by some who ask “Who cares?” – it bears noting that an online media outlet often dismissed by established entities (specifically Bristol) uncovered a lie those same bigwigs had bought and perpetuated for months. Their reporters did their due diligence and dug into a tale the others had accepted at face value. Whatever readers think of Deadspin’s sometimes questionable methods or motivations, the rest of the sports media world can’t make cracks about Deadspin’s integrity again without this blatant example of its own shortcomings popping up as an easy and instant retort.

But back to Te’o. The reason this story is so engaging and head-scratching isn’t because of any criminal component or widespread damage. There doesn’t appear to be any institutional corruption, as is usually the case with an NCAA “scandal.” This story is the block-buster it is simply because of its bizarre circumstances. I can’t remember a story that elicited this type of reaction. It took a long time for me to even comprehend the angle. When the sports world is rocked by a massive revelation, the usual reactions are something along the lines of “Oh my God!” or “How could they have let this happen?” This time, it was more like “Wait … what?”

If Lennay Kekua never existed, how could so many reporters have written about her as if she were real, as if she had died the same day as Te’o’s grandmother? How could the single most memorable aspect of the entire 2012 college football season have been fabricated out of thin air?

The term “catfish” is now part of the mainstream vernacular, and Te’o has publicly stated that he was the victim and in no way a part of this plot of fiction. After reading the full transcript of his interview with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, I’m going to say something I didn’t expect to ever say when the story broke:

I think I believe him. Initially, it seemed impossible for him to have been taken for this ride without having willingly gotten into the vehicle of deception. Now, though figuratively unbelievable, it seems literally believable.

In order to believe that Te’o was really as naïve as his story indicates he was, I have to accept that I may possibly be just as naïve.

Believing him is akin to his believing Ronaiah Tuiasasopo and his accomplices for all those months. Maybe I’m being “catfished” myself, believing the figure of Manti Te’o as an honest and truthful individual is real, while it’s really a manufactured personality.

If his behavior is coming from a place of deceit, he could only be called sociopathic. If they are all lies and he is falsely maintaining his lack of knowledge and involvement, he would be “a gifted actor,” to use Shaap’s words.

Without knowing him but through the looking glass, I tend to believe that Te’o was indeed conned for a long period of time. Those who know him claim he’s a trusting person, that he becomes emotionally invested easily. It seems feasible to me that that’s what happened here. When he became suspicious toward the end of the hoax, he allowed us to continue believing the original story because he was still confused as to what was actually the truth. How could he have casually mentioned in an interview that he wasn’t sure Lennay was actually dead, or that she had even been a real person?

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

I can’t imagine how he must feel, having been built up for so long by the very same people now tearing him down. I can’t imagine how the weeks leading up to the BCS title game must have been, with the knowledge that this house of cards would inevitably crash on top of him. I can’t imagine the comments and trash talk he will likely hear as an NFL rookie next season, no matter which angle of this story ends up accepted as the truth.

I also can’t imagine a world where Manti Te’o is just a great football player, though it existed so recently.