The Manti Te’o girlfriend story has more legs than a centipede. Every time I turn on a sportscast, check my Twitter feed or a sports page, the story has changed. It’s now more twisted than that pile of chargers, Ethernet cables and other electronic peripherals in the bottom drawer in the den, and is evolving faster than a mutated virus in a science fiction film. Based on the many news reports and blogs I’ve read about the fake girlfriend hoax, he’s definitely got a PR problem—one that could affect his career in the NFLbefore it even starts.
I almost missed this story. I was wrapped up in the first week of classes and consumed by the Lance Armstrong confessional, which will probably be a future blog post. All of a sudden this guy from Notre Dame was consuming the sports world with the most bizarre story since the balloon boy.
Here are the undisputed facts: Manti Te’o is a big deal at Notre Dame. It was reported that his grandmother and girlfriend died within hours of each other, eliciting much sympathy in the press last fall. The South Bend Tribune, Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports and other media gushed about his bravery in the face of adversity. He was on ESPN Gameday talking about the tragedy. He was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, and we all know an inspirational story can influence voters for any award. He came in second, and Notre Dame went on to play Alabama in the National Championship game.
Fast forward to Wednesday, January 16, and Deadspinbreaks a shocking story: The girlfriend didn’t exist. This is where it starts to get weird.
I can’t possibly keep track of the twists and turns in this story. Apparently Notre Dame knew about it in December, but for reasons still unclear kept it from the public. Te’o’s denials of knowledge and involvement started to morph, and various family members had conflicting quotes. Did he meet her? Or was she just an online relationship? Not sure when we’ll know the truth, but the speculation in the press and online range from accusations of Te’o cooking up the scheme to gain Heisman votes to his creating the fake girlfriend to hide the fact that he’s gay. Since the admitted perpetrator of the hoax is apparently an acquaintanceof Te’o, it’s not preposterous to think the hoax was planned for reasons other than “catfishing” a prominent athlete.
Te’o did an off-camera interview with ESPNin which he admitted he embellished the story, and at this writing it has been announced that Te’o and family members will sit down with Katie Couric on Thursday, January 24th.
Where am I going with this? I’m not sure—because the minute I post it, the story will take another turn and this blog post will be out of date. But right now, Lance Armstrong has more credibility. Oh yes, there are writers who are saying Armstrong and Te’o are very similar, but I disagree.
Why would I say Armstrong, who finally admitted to doping throughout his cycling career, is more credible than Te’o? Because Armstrong has been completely consistentfrom Day 1. His story never varied. For more than a decade he has vehemently denied he used any performance enhancing substances. Whether he is a sociopath who believes his own lies, or was so arrogant he felt he would never get caught, at least the guy was consistent. Most liars get caught up sooner or later by conflicting stories or some slip-up that forces them to come clean. Not Armstrong. His ability to come up with a story and stick to it is admirable. Politicians could take a page from his playbook. But I digress….
If I were Manti Te’o’s publicist—and I’m not, his family has hired Matt Hiltzik as their publicist. He represents, among other folks, Alec Baldwin, Don Imus, Glenn Beck, Justin Bieber and…Katie Couric.
Manti Te’o could learn a thing or two from the disgraced Armstrong’s confession to Oprah. This blog on CNN points out a number of things that Armstrong did wrong. As the article says, getting caught is just the beginning, and blaming yourself is not sufficient. Manti Te’o and those who follow him would do well to learn from the mistakes of arguably the most famous athlete of the past decade.
So if I were Manti Te’o’s publicist? I’d tell him “Come clean—NOW.” If you’re gay, say it. It’s darn time a major sport had an openly gay player, much less a star. I know being Mormon, and going to a Catholic school makes that admission more difficult, but go for it. Somebody will “out” you eventually. That’s news that should come from you, and nobody else. If you were in on the hoax, say so, but tell us why. If you didn’t know about it, admit you’re gullible, but be believable when you do it because nobody believes anybody with a degree from a school like Notre Dame could be so naïve.
This will be a tough one for Manti Te’o and Notre Dame to overcome. The questions will linger for a long time. Unlike the Lance Armstrong fiasco, this scandal doesn’t threaten to demolish (or reform) an entire global sport. It does threaten to undermine the credibility of one fine university’s athletic department PR team as well as the entire sports journalism community, which fell for a hoax hook, line and sinker, and never once did the kind of fact checking taught in Journalism 101.