Thursday, January 17, 2013

Te'o's Tale Really Is No Great Mystery

The media pundits are confounded (now there's a shock). The talking heads on various sports gab shows expressed utter confusion on the Manti Te'o fake dead girlfriend saga. They want to point fingers, but are too perplexed by all the spin cascading out of Twitter.

That's where we come in. You have questions? We have answers. The 10 things you're just dying to know about the best tale coming out of South Bend since "Rudy" (yeah, that one was mostly fake, too):

1. Why is the Te'o Hoax the best sports story of the year, and maybe all-time?

Because it has all the requisite ingredients for a salacious tale, absent a criminal element. Nobody actually died (Te'o's grandmother did, but she was not part of the hoax). Nobody was seriously traumatized by it (as in the Jerry Sandusky case). And nobody was even defrauded of money or glory (as in the Lance Armstrong case).

Yet, it involves one of the biggest and most iconic brand names of American sports. It really doesn't get much bigger than Notre Dame football and few teams are also so universally loathed outside of its immediate fanbase. Right away, there's enough flood of Schadenfreude to overflow Notre Dame Stadium.

2. Who really got played for fools?

The mainstream media. Almost every major publication from Sports Illustrated to the South Bend Tribune got a crack at this fraud of a story, yet nobody even got remotely suspicious about lots of things that just didn't add up. It took Deadspin - love it or hate it - to come up with the goods to nail this to the wall. And yet, in the immediate aftermath, the media types were still the ones most willingly toeing the Notre Dame company line. Pat Forde, normally a reasonable sort, went as far as not only defending the school, but taking shots at, of all people, Deadspin, for breaking the story.

Sports media has always had a kind of "Liberty Valance" relationship with Notre Dame football. It's just so easy to burn the notes and say, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

3. Is it so hard to check the facts?

SI's Pete Thamel interviewed Te'o extensively for a feature piece during the season, and now he claims there were a few "small red flags" from his conversation with Te'o. If you read the transcript, they weren't red flags. They were atom bombs.

For example, if this person was the "love of your life," would you not know what she majored in college and what year she graduated? And you couldn't take the time to visit her after a serious car accident or attend her funeral? Could SI's phalanx of fact-checkers not verify a few of these very simple details? When I worked as a freelancer for SI, I was grilled by its fact-checkers for every minutiae. So this is not a sin of omission, but commission.

4. Will we ever hear from Te'o?

Not really. While Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick implied during his Wednesday press conference that Te'o would be made available the next day, Tom Condon, Te'o's agent, apparently nixed that idea. Te'o has left school after graduating in December and moved to Florida to prepare for the NFL Draft. Chances are his next public appearance will be at the draft, and at which time he could just dismiss what by then would be "an old story."

5. Is this going to hurt Te'o's draft status?

This is the NFL we're talking about, sonny. Te'o's missing about 100 tackles against Alabama hurt his draft status, not something inconsequential like a made-up dead girlfriend. Remember, Nebraska's Lawrence Phillips used his real girlfriend's face to fetch mail and yet he was still taken sixth overall in the 1996 draft. Unless you're physically incarcerated, it's all good.

6. Now, is there a big winner in this saga?

The SEC, of course. The SEC wins everything.

7. Then who's the big loser?

Oprah. Thursday was supposed to be the big relaunch of her fledgling OWN network when she got Lance Armstrong on the couch to confess all his sins. Now Armstrong is so yesterday's news that he's about as relevant in the minds of the American public as the war in Mali. What's Mali, you ask? Exactly.

8. Is Notre Dame off the hook?

Maybe. With an indulgent media willing to buy whatever it sells, Notre Dame will get through this mostly unscathed just as it did from the other scandals. Call it "Sex (Lizzy Seeberg), Lies (Te'o) and Videotape (Declan Sullivan)," if you will. If a school can skate on the death of a student videographer being put to work under extremely unsafe conditions and stonewall a sexual assault allegation that led to the suicide of a young woman, this is child's play.

9. Maybe Te'o is gay, and this was a cover story gone bad?

This conspiracy theory emerged almost immediately after the Deadspin story broke. It goes like this: Te'o's gay, so having a long-distance relationship was the perfect cover to fend off unwanted female attention on campus. And with her "death," he could ask to be left alone to grieve.

This narrative has some logic to it, but it's simply too far-fetched to be true. There are a lot of ways to stay in the closet so it makes little sense to generate so much attention on yourself.

10. So, what's the deal, then?

Te'o seems a naively earnest sort, so it's doubtful that he perpetrated the hoax himself. But once he realized he was duped, he did nothing to stop it and ended up helping to perpetuate it. He did it partly to save himself from embarrassment and partly to revel in the attention it generated for him. While Notre Dame was not complicit initially, it did not come forth to reveal the truth and simply played along and hoped it'd all just go away.

It almost worked.

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