A few days ago, I was sitting with a couple friends at dinner, talking about — what else — the Manti Te’o hoax. Or scandal. Or revelation. Whatever you want to call it. My pals don’t devour sports news like I do, but I thought this was a story that had to be told to everyone. I tried my best to summarize the details as concisely as possible. Fake girlfriend Lennay Kekua. Mastermind Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Notre Dame. Car accidents. Comas. Leukemia. Twitter. Catfishing?
I was in the middle of explaining how Te’o’s NFL draft stock will likely fall — either because of his unbelievable naiveté or unthinkable deception — when one friend stopped me mid sentence.
“Sure, it’s definitely an interesting story, but what does this have to do with his ability to play professional football?”
I looked at her incredulously, as if her question had totally missed the point. I sputtered, “This is a character issue! Even if he wasn’t complicit in the hoax, he still lied about his relationship once he found out she wasn’t real! This was the biggest storyline in college football all year, and people aren’t happy to find out that it was all a lie!”
Pausing for a second, she said, “People have the right to feel deceived and even angry. But still, why shouldn’t he be able to play in the NFL?”
My reply was a lousy rejoinder. “Think about Lance Armstrong admitting, to Oprah of all people, that he doped through his seven straight Tour de France victories. Don’t you think he should have his victories taken away?”
She caught me in a trap. “That’s completely different. It’s a character issue, but a character issue related directly to his sport. Steroids directly affected his performance on the bike. How does a fake girlfriend affect Te’o’s performance on the field? And to be honest, I don’t know if Lance should have been punished so harshly — everyone else in cycling was doing it at the time, right?”
Searching for a way to stay afloat, buoyed by the immense importance I had placed on this story all week, I smugly arrived at a new example. “But what about David Petraeus? He had an affair with his biographer, and he had to resign as CIA director!”
She was unfazed. “His affair could have directly affected his job performance. He could have accidentally revealed sensitive information. Petraeus is a high-ranking government official, and he’s more than 50 years old. Te’o is a college football player, and he’s only 21. In the worst-case-scenario, Te’o made up a girlfriend, things spiraled out of control once Notre Dame got big, and he felt he had no choice but to keep lying. Other athletes have committed assault, shot people, cheated on tests and took drugs — and this is what becomes a national scandal?”
I sheepishly averted my glance, knowing that I lost. She made a very good point. I didn’t even bother trying to explain that the story is a media sensation in part because it’s so confusing and unexpected. She was right.
Knowing what we know now — that Te’o is likely not the mastermind behind the hoax — we need to re-evaluate our perspective on this admittedly fascinating story. We’re going to blast Te’o for his gullibility and for his handling of the situation when other celebrities are behaving badly — and criminally? Even Heisman winner Johnny Manziel was arrested for a late-night fight last summer in College Station.
He’s only 21. He’s our age. And while we probably haven’t created fake significant others (or put our faith in a suspicious online relationship), we’ve made other mistakes in our personal and romantic relationships. Maybe you’ve exaggerated the nature of a relationship or failed to tell your friends that a date went badly. None of this is on the same scale as Manti. But we also aren’t constantly under the national spotlight. I stood in front of him at the Walter Camp Awards two weekends ago as he was assailed from all angles by cameras and fans. He looked tired and a bit overwhelmed. I bet those bright lights would occasionally blind all of us to the mistake-free course of action. And our mistakes certainly won’t deprive us of our ability to succeed in the future. This bizarre incident shouldn’t be Te’o’s biggest moment.
I won’t stop following the Te’o story. It’s too interesting to resist. But I’ll make sure to keep it in perspective. I’ve been thinking about Junot Diaz’s opening description of his main character in “This is How You Lose Her.” It probably applies to Te’o, and all of us. Manti is “like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good.”