Manti Te'o watches on as the Fighting Irish defeat USC, November 27, 2010. (Flickr/Neon Tommy)
Two years ago, I called the Notre Dame football program a moral cesspool. Two weeks ago, I wrote a story about the horrible treatment of women who have accused members of the Notre Dame football team of sexual assault, harassment and rape. These strands knotted together Wednesday in a drama that threatens to break the Internet: the incredibly bizarre, but unbelievably true, story of Fighting Irish star Manti Te’o and his fake online girlfriend.
Te’o was a campus icon: the runner-up Heisman trophy winner, and the acknowledged inspirational leader of a team that came within one game of a national championship. He also, as Deadspin.com reported in a brilliant piece of investigative journalism by Tim Burke and Jack Dickey, shared, knowingly or unknowingly, an elaborate lie with major media outlets about a girlfriend, Stanford student Lennay Kekua, who didn’t really exist. In the last six months as Teo’s fame ballooned, America learned about the football star’s soul mate who suffered a terrible car accident and, while hospitalized, discovered that she had leukemia. Lennay, according to Te’o, would stay on the phone with him for eight hours while he slept because hearing him breathe would ease her suffering. In September, she passed away. This tragic relationship was covered in Sports Illustrated, ESPN and even The New York Times. Te’o did interviews where he choked back tears. He spoke of their time together as well as her parents. People raised thousands of dollars in her name for cancer research. Once again, she didn’t exist.
A family friend of Te’o, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, in fact created the fictitious Lennay Kekua. Today I listened to a recording of Te’o on The Jim Rome Show, his voice quavering as he spoke about “Lennay’s death.” The only conclusion one can draw is that he was either the victim of an insanely elaborate grift whose ingenuity would humble David Mamet, or something stinks in South Bend. Either one believes that for three years, Te’o was content with an online relationship that involved neither Skype nor Facetime and just gilded the lily about their meetings. Or this was a ruse that started before anyone knew or cared who Manti Te’o was and as he grew into a college football superstar, it spun out of control. Te’o issued a statement within hours of the Deadspin report claiming that he was the victim of a hoax. A press conference commanded by Te'o is also forthcoming, which will probably resemble a wildlife special where a gazelle is feasted upon by a pride of lions. Maybe Te’o, a devout Mormon, wanted to find a way to disengage from a campus hook-up culture that allegedly often strays into sexual assault. But if he is hiding facts about his personal life, it’s hard to imagine the press backing off until they find out exactly what they are. If it was a hoax, then Manti Te’o, a man who would fall in love online, have a three-year long-distance relationship and nurse a young woman through leukemia without ever seeing her in person, should be put in a lab and studied for the greater good.
Yet as with the far more serious previous scandals attached to this storied program, the problem is not just the behavior of students but the moral compass on display by the adults in charge. Within hours of the story breaking online, Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick held a press conference where he backed Te’o to the hilt saying, “Every single thing about this was real to Manti. There was no suspicion. The grief was real, the affection was real, and that’s the sad nature of this cruel game.”
Swarbrick revealed that a private outside firm had been hired to investigate just who had perpetrated this “cruel game.” The athletic director even cried. His behavior only raises more important questions than anything Te’o will face tomorrow. Why hasn’t there been any kind of privately funded, outside investigation into the alleged sexual assaults committed by members of the football team? Why was there no private, outside investigation into Coach Brian Kelly’s role in the death of team videographer Declan Sullivan? It says so much that Te’o’s bizarre soap opera has moved Swarbrick to openly weeping but he hasn’t spared one tear, let alone held one press conference, for Lizzy Seeberg, the young woman who took her own life after coming forward with allegations that a member of the team sexually assaulted her. Swarbrick’s press conference displayed that the problem at Notre Dame is not just football players without a compass; it’s the adults without a conscience. Their credo isn’t any kind of desire for truth or justice. Instead it seems to be little more than a constant effort to protect the Fighting Irish brand, no matter who gets hurt.
For more on Notre Dame's moral hypocrisy, read Dave Zirin's column about the university's silent rape scandal.