Manti Te’o talks to the press during media day for the BCS National Championship game. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Manti Te’o has a story and he’s sticking to it. With millions of dollars hanging in the balance, the Notre Dame star, whose cancer-stricken girlfriend Lennay Kekua turned out to never exist, has decided that it’s better to look like a doe-eyed victim than a furtive fraud. In an interview with Katie Couric to be aired Thursday night, the All-American with NFL dreams finally breaks his silence on camera. Te’o reportedly tells Couric that he was deceived into carrying on a three-year online relationship with a fake woman whose identity was really created by “family friend” Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Te’o spent the season talking about how Lennay’s death broke his heart, but he had to play on in her memory. He built a heroic stature and helped create—he says unknowingly—a hokey narrative that was repeated as gospel at Sports Illustrated, ESPN and The New York Times.
The interview includes Te’o’s parents, who say they are going public not as a way to salvage the millions that are evaporating with their son’s draft status but to warn others who might also be ensnared in an online multi-year relationship. As for Te’o, he insists that he consciously lied about his imaginary girlfriend only after finding out he was a hoax victim. In parts of the interview already released, Te’o says, “Katie, put yourself in my situation. I, my whole world told me that she died on Sept. 12. Everybody knew that. This girl, who I committed myself to, died on Sept. 12. Now I get a phone call on Dec. 6, saying that she’s alive, and then I’m going be put on national TV two days later. And to ask me about the same question. You know, what would you do?”
“What would you do?” is a bizarre question when it implies you might find yourself in a three-year relationship followed by nursing your loved one through a car accident and leukemia without ever so much as Skyping or visiting her in the hospital. It also implies that a “family friend” would choose to devote years, recruit partners in crime and spend thousands of dollars to ensnare you for motives that remain a mystery. So I have no idea what I would do.
I do know, however, what I would do if I found myself in a scandal with a seven-figure fortune on the line. I would do exactly what the Te’o family did and that’s hire entertainment’s top damage control/public relations expert Matthew Hiltzik to make it all go away. Mr. Hiltzik was the person Justin Bieber called after Beebs was smacked with a paternity suit in 2011. He also has an extensive client list including—guess who?—Katie Couric. It’s a one-stop-shop for damage control and media makeover. After Hiltzik entered the Te’o camp, they also gave ESPN ace reporter Jeremy Schaap a spreadsheet showing 1000 phone calls and 500 hours of discussions between Te’o and someone at a phone number they said Te’o believed to be Lennay Kekua. Widely publicized immediately by ESPN, and then other media outlets looking to spread the latest scoop, this unverified list is supposed to further plant the seeds of “Te’o as hoax victim.”
We don’t know if the Te’os are telling the truth or just spent the last week getting their story straight. We don’t know, but to be honest, I’ve stopped caring about that facet of this. This is an inside-out story, where banal substance—what is up with this guy’s social life?—is irrelevant compared to all of what it says about the side players involved. ESPN, Sports Illustrated and many other outlets printed stories of a young woman’s cancer and death, the mourning over her and then her rebirth without checking to see if any of it was true. Notre Dame helped perpetuate that story even though people are saying anonymously that they had “doubts” whether Lennay Kekua existed. Now the Te’o group is again expertly exploiting the media’s desire to have access and break the story. Good PR people like Hiltzik only create the new narrative. They then depend on big media to not only tell the world but also analyze the new information, and turn something as prosaic as an unverified spreadsheet of phone numbers into beautiful prose. ESPN senior writer Ivan Maisel, wrote an accompanying piece to Schaap’s scoop that compared Manti Te’o to a character in a Frank Capra movie—I wish I was kidding—and argued that the linebacker may just be too good for this world. “I believe Manti Te’o,” wrote Maisel. “I believe he told the truth at Notre Dame. I believe he told the truth to ESPN correspondent Jeremy Schaap…. Where the Twitter memes see an easy target, I see a naïf who just discovered in public that the world can be mean.” I can absolutely see Hiltzik reading this and, paraphrasing Alan Rickman in Die Hard, cackling “You ask for a miracle and I give you ESPN.”
This is a story about so much more than what we see in its frigid, grifting, little heart. It’s about how the twenty-four-hour sports media are in such desperate need for copy, they will let their subjects dictate their own narratives. It’s a story about the way we are being bred for cynicism by a press we are being conditioned never to trust. It’s also a story, barring new information, that is now officially living on the fumes of speculation. But one thing that requires no speculation is whether this kind of media flimflam could happen again. Based on what we’re seeing right now before our eyes, it is already taking place.
Watch Dave Zirin discuss the Te’o scandal on Democracy Now!