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Lies and the People Who Tell Them

Let's talk about the real liars in the Te'o story.

Let's hold off with the pitchforks for a few minutes, ok?
Let's hold off with the pitchforks for a few minutes, ok?
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

There's so much to say about the Manti Te'o fake girlfriend story that it is almost overwhelming. This is a controversy custom built for the twitter-age, and twitter has already delivered whatever it is you're looking for: theories, justifications, memes, and even more research.

Hey, I'm not going to pretend I don't have my own theories. But that's all they are right now, and it's probably best we do what no one likes to do in our blink-and-you-missed-it culture: wait for the facts to come in. I mean, what fun is a juicy scandal without rampant speculation? But let's give it a shot anyway.

However, today is a good day to remember the most important rule of athlete and celebrity gossip, which is what this story basically boils down to anyway:


You don't know who is a good guy. You don't know who is a "clubhouse cancer". You don't know who is actually quiet and introverted. You don't know what athletes and celebrities are actually like. You know their image, and the more famous they are, the more likely that image has been carefully cultivated by some PR firm.

Or worse, a bunch of journalists.

Sportswriters have been shoveling the same pile of manure for over a century: a guy doesn't win because he's the biggest, fastest, or strongest but he wins because of some inherent quality of his character. Athletes are our real world superheroes, and superheroes have to have a good origin story.

It's not enough for Te'o to be a good football player, but he has to have a tragic backstory in which he triumphed over adversity. A dead girlfriend who begs you to play the Michigan game instead of coming to her funeral? That's like catnip to a sportswriter. Who cares if it wasn't true and should have been uncovered even with the most basic fact checking?

The reason Sports Illustrated and ESPN ran with this story without even checking the details of it is because it fit their preconceived notions of the person Te'o is. Hey, he's a good kid who returned for his senior year to play for the "good guys" of Notre Dame. Of course this story is true. Why wouldn't it be? What a great angle! Let's just keep running this story into the ground and not once, I don't know, interview the girlfriend's family. Wouldn't that have turned up a red flag?

Now, it seems the entire internet is turning their phasers to snark, and aiming right at Te'o. God help him if he is not telling the truth right now about being an unwitting victim of a hoax. Because if he thinks this will blow over, he is sorely mistaken. The internet is like a pit bull once it has a scandal in its teeth. A thousand angry bloggers are about to pour over every media statement of his over his entire Notre Dame career. Trust me, they will find the inconsistencies, because there's nothing we love more than being "outraged" by someone else's personal failings.

And let's face it, right now a lot of the story doesn't add up at all. It seems likely that at some point that Te'o was lying about his relationship with his fake girlfriend. He talked to her every night for four months for hours at a time? That's some commitment to a prank, if he's not involved. He sent "a dozen roses and two picks" to her funeral? If there was no funeral, where did he send the roses? The details of his meeting after the Stanford game involve eyes meeting and hands grazing? How did this happen? Did Te'o invent these details to tell a better story? Or was he lying to himself and convinced himself these things were true?

The scandal is going to focus on questions like this. It's going to focus on what Te'o knew and when. Did he perpetrate a fraud or is he the most naïve online dater in America? Is he an innocent victim or, well, a complete sociopath?

Those are the questions people will be asking, but it misses the point. The questions we should be asking are why did the media push this narrative onto the public? Why did they buy into it whole cloth? Why do they keep selling us Superman when we all know these games are played by Clark Kent?

This is a scandal all right. It's just not about a Notre Dame linebacker.