The PlayBook: The Tale of Manti Te'o

By Fraser Lockerbie

The Manti Te'o myth is unraveling, but maybe we would have been better off if it never had.

Wednesday, January 16, 10:46 P.M.

Weird stuff coming out over the airwaves in South Bend tonight; some screwball, spiraling tale of tragedy, torment and deceit. No way to know if any of it’s actually true, not yet at least, not tonight and not while the fat’s still in the fire. By all accounts this is shaping up to be one of the strangest stories to come through the ether in years: total deniability, all smoke and mirrors, some who-said-what type stuff. Conspiracy and sincere fear and loathing in every direction. Only one thing’s for certain: It won’t be good for anyone involved. It’s breaking too fast and in all the wrong ways. It’s ugly, going sideways with great speed, and there won’t be any rest for the wicked (though there never is) tonight at Notre Dame, not with all this going on. It’s one thing to actively engage in the practice of mythmaking but quite another entirely to deceive the legions of devout followers and fans and the national sporting press all in one great big fell fucking swoop. 

Ah, but a slow train cometh; won’t be long now. We don’t much care to be made fools of over and over in print, in our own backyard.

Thursday, January 17, 8:52 P.M.

The story emerging about Manti Te’o is a strange one. A rising defensive star in a rejuvenated program overcomes abject adversity to triumph against all odds on an All-American field of play. A sports writer’s wet dream, a story too good to pass up and too good to be true: a devout Mormon of Samoan descent (not another Waspy rich-kid quarterback from suburban Texas) carries a down-and-out Notre Dame team to an undefeated season after being told to attend the university by none other than God himself and after losing both his grandmother and his girlfriend in the same calendar year. On the same fucking day!

And everybody cheers.

The lights go up; the team loses the Big Game but the movie is over and the legend is born, the myth is made for another generation of Rudy-loving luddites, people living in the bygone era of Irish lore. But it’s extended beyond just the small town of South Bend, Indiana; all of Middle America has been touched by Te’o, the first feel-good sports story we’ve heard in so long we can’t help but buy into its heroism, as lofty as it might seem. No one questions it. No one wants to. The Manti Te’o myth is a lone bright spot in a year shrouded in steroids and scandal, Bountygate and lockouts, Lance Armstrong and Jerry Sandusky. We needed this. This one was ours. And we weren’t ready to give it back up to be sacrificed to the sporting Gods.

So when Deadspin sideswiped us on Wednesday with the hoax story things started unraveling fast. Anger, amazement, wonder and frustration, confusion crossed our faces, with each line further entangling the truth. Fact blurred with fiction; the once linear narrative of a man overcoming impossible odds suddenly had so many different angles and permutations, so many twists, turns and bends that we still don’t know what to believe today. For every question the Deadspin story answered, it asked two more: at what point was Manti Te’o privy to this tangled web? Quotes from December 8th have the linebacker referencing his supposedly dead girlfriend, two days after both he and the university said Te’o was informed of the fraud. Was he complicit? For how long?

And what about Notre Dame? Their prompt responses (perhaps too prompt) subvert their own timeline: if Te’o supposedly informed the school on December 26th, as their initial press release suggests, why then would they support a fundraiser in Lennay Kekua’s memory on January 9th, a full two weeks after they knew the story to be a hoax?

Why would neither party get out in front of this? Is this a cover-up at the end? A conspiracy from the start? Or just poorly planned play all around?

Conspiracy theories will of course abound (from the outrageous “Bill Belichick orchestrated this to plunge Te’o’s draft stock” to the kinda-don’t-wanna-believe-but-kinda-do “Te’o is the latest in a long line of sacrificial lambs to keep College Football in the headlines”) and it may be some time before any real answers come to light, but there is one thing we can be sure of and that’s how all this got started:

It started in South Bend at a newspaper that couldn’t keep its own story straight. It was picked up by a reckless sporting press starved for headlines surrounding the remarkable resurgence of Notre Dame. Once it hit long form in the likes of Sports Illustrated and ESPN, the convoluted details, the five Ws and the timeline got lost in the compelling narrative, and when it went mainstream on CBS This Morning and in the New York Times, the myth was by then all but mixed with reality. 

At no point did anyone (save, I suppose, Deadspin) challenge the obvious inconsistencies in this story: not when the South Bend Tribune published contradictory timelines in their own pages only weeks apart. Or when the New York Post, ESPN and CBS contradicted them and each other in their own timelines. No one questioned why Manti Te’o didn’t attend the funeral of the girl he apparently loved (an LA Times article says Kekua “insisted that he not miss a game”) or why the AP had the location of the funeral in a California city that doesn’t exist. No one questioned any of this because no one wanted to; not the writers, not the readers and certainly not the perpetrators, whoever they are and however numerous they may be. 

But everyone’s asking questions now aren’t they? Now that the cats out the bag, that the shits hit the fan, everybody wants to know why. Now we want the five Ws but you gotta wonder: with the sordid state of our sporting life would we have been better off if Deadspin had never asked the first one, if they had never wondered “Who Was Lennay Kekua?”

The Week’s Lines: San Francisco (-4) over Atlanta, New England (-9) over Baltimore


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