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.”