Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Manti Te'o: Stupid victim of a hoax? Or deranged perpetrator of a hoax?

Following the publication of a story on, the national media is taking a serious look at the character and intellect of Manti Te'o, the Notre Dame linebacker who, before he played poorly in the national championship game against Alabama, was thought to be a top 5-caliber pick in this year's NFL draft.

Here is what the Chicago Tribune story on the hoax involving Mr. Te'o says:

Manti Te'o's ascendancy to national star and Heisman Trophy candidate was jet-propelled by the personal backdrop of a girlfriend tragically lost to leukemia in September. Except that girlfriend never existed. And so the former Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman runner-up has plunged into a morass of controversy and confusion, with a Deadspin story reporting that the woman known as Lennay Kekua was a hoax -- and Notre Dame confirming that later Thursday in an official statement. "On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia," the school's statement read. "The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators."

Te'o issued a statement later, claiming he was duped:

This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating. ... In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was.

The problem with Te'o's explanation is that his earlier statements about this supposedly dead girlfriend made it sound as if they met in person at Stanford University, where she had allegedly been a student and he was playing in a football game.

This republication of a South Bend Tribune story comes from a Mormon newspaper (Te'o is a Mormon) in Utah, the Deseret News. It sounds to me like Te'o told the reporter, Eric Hansen, how and when he met his "girlfriend":

It never felt like a chance meeting, although it probably appeared that way from the outside looking in. Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te’o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes. They could have just as easily brushed past each other and into separate sunsets. Te’o had plenty to preoccupy himself that November weekend in Palo Alto, Calif., back in 2009.

Here is my guess as to what likely happened: Te'o is stupid. He was the victim of a hoax. Some group of people, probably students at Stanford University, saw him as this extremely dumb Notre Dame kid (Stanford and Notre Dame play each other every year) and decided to trick him into believing that this "girlfriend" was real. The Stanford kids perhaps thought they could help Stanford's football team by messing around with the emotions of a rival team's star player.

But after a while, once Te'o was emotionally invested in this fake relationship, he then started telling small lies about the girlfriend to his friends and family and eventually to the reporter from the South Bend Tribune, Eric Hansen. He told everyone he had a girlfriend, and he really thought this online persona was his girlfriend from afar. But it made a better, and more convincing story if he actually had met her. So he just made up that little part. The rest, as far as he knew, was true.

If my take on the story is correct, I don't think the lie Te'o told, about meeting this fake person, is good evidence that he has some horrible character flaw or that he is a psychopathic liar. I can understand someone embellishing a story and then getting caught up in that story and feeling like the best thing to do is to keep it up, instead of admitting that aspect was untrue.

Yet, what this story says to me is that Te'o is dumb. Rocks for brains dumb. Anyone of average intelligence surely would have figured out after not too long--especially because she would never meet him in person--that this girl was phony. But he never caught on. He was not smart enough to catch on.

What I seriously doubt is that his low-level of general intelligence matters one whit on the football field. He might not have enough talent to go in the top of the next draft. But he has plenty enough football intelligence and football skills to play in the NFL. Just don't ask Mr. Te'o to do your advanced calculus homework for you.

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