Upon review, Te'o hoax case a puzzle

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My wife asked me once whether I'd rather be considered evil or stupid. Pride prompted me to pick the former, although the latter would have been the smarter answer in the long run.

After all, being considered stupid covers a multitude of sins. You have a lot more deniability if you're stupid.

Watching the Manti Te'o story unfold over the past few days, it's clear the star linebacker for the University of Notre Dame and the Heisman Trophy runner-up wants the world to believe he's firmly entrenched on the stupid side of the ledger. I understand that. I even half believe his story that, thanks to social media, he had an emotionally wrenching relationship with a woman he never met but whom he believed had subsequently died after a struggle with leukemia.

It now appears that the woman Mr. Te'o says he knew as Lennay Kekua never existed. This throws into question Mr. Te'o's heartbreaking tale about falling asleep during eight-hour-long phone conversations with her while she was in the hospital. Mr. Te'o has maintained that their love affair was conducted over the phone and with the aid of various social media platforms without benefit of ever hooking up in person.

If true, Manti Te'o will have the distinction of being among a tiny minority of high-profile college football stars too disciplined to engage in the idiotic practice of "sexting" pictures of himself to his girlfriend. Mr. Te'o and Ms. Kekua obviously never used Skype, either, which represents a considerable amount of restraint on both their parts. They were positively chaste by today's standards.

Much has been made of Mr. Te'o seeming oddly content to have an online relationship with a woman he never met when he was surrounded by flesh-and-blood female admirers. Perhaps his Mormon faith accounts for what some might consider superhuman restraint on his part.

During Notre Dame's perfect regular season, Mr. Te'o performed brilliantly against Michigan State despite dealing with the weight of his real grandmother's real death and his fake girlfriend's fake death. Tears and condolences mixed with congratulations as Manti Te'o became the heart and soul of the Fighting Irish. His leadership on the field and perseverance in the face of personal tragedy helped make him a solid Heisman contender.

It was the kind of bittersweet sports narrative that America loves, especially in an era of broken heroes like Lance Armstrong. Unfortunately, Mr. Te'o now has the misfortune of trending on Twitter just as the noose had finally tightened around Mr. Armstrong's neck.

Recently, the voters for the Baseball Hall of Fame refused to send a slate of steroid abusers to Cooperstown. The priestly caste of sportswriters couldn't abide "cheaters" rubbing elbows with their heroes -- the confirmed racists, tax delinquents, wife beaters and assorted scoundrels who ushered in baseball's golden years.

The sports media couldn't get enough of Manti Te'o's mix of gridiron triumph and locker room sadness months ago, even as rumors began circulating on the Internet that all wasn't as it appeared to be. According to Mr. Te'o, he took his own concerns to school authorities after receiving a call from a woman claiming to be Ms. Kekua who disputed the rumors of her death.

The university initiated an investigation and quickly agreed with its star athlete that he had been the victim of an elaborate and cruel hoax by parties unknown. Mr. Te'o's sweet, trusting nature had led to his betrayal, according to his supporters.

Notre Dame was steamrolled 42-14 by Alabama's Crimson Tide for the BCS national championship on Jan. 7, but that wasn't the worst thing to happen to Manti Te'o this month. Becoming the focus of national ridicule after Deadspin.com's damning expose came out Wednesday has to be the stuff of nightmares just as every NFL team is plotting its draft strategy for 2013. Still, this drama won't affect Mr. Te'o's NFL prospects if teams believe he has it in him to play professional football.

I have no idea whether Mr. Te'o conspired in his own hoax or was its victim, but I believe there's at least a 50/50 chance he'll eventually end up on Oprah's couch telling a different story than the one he told the media many months ago. I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and entertain the possibility that there was, indeed, some cruel prank perpetrated on him -- but I'm not naive enough to believe he has told the whole story. The whole story is doubtlessly more embarrassing and pathetic than we can imagine from gleaning the absurd facts so far.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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