Defending Manti Te’o… Sort Of

We’ve all had our fun with the Manti Te’o story. If you’re new to this, Te’o is a star linebacker for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, finished second in the Heisman Trophy race, and is a projected first round pick in the next NFL Draft. This season, as Notre Dame was making a run towards being the #1 ranked college football team in the country, stories began to run about the team in major publications, including one about Te’o fighting through tragedy after learning about the death of his grandmother and his girlfriend within the span of six hours, only to have a great game against then tenth-ranked Michigan State, on the road, giving the Fighting Irish their best start in ten years.

Except that his girlfriend didn’t exist. (His grandmother did, though, and she did die – that’s not crap.) broke the story yesterday, sending millions scrambling to think of some clever reference to girlfriends in Canada, George Glass, or something else I don’t feel like finding a link to. Notre Dame says that Te’o been duped by someone on the Internet, while Deadspin implies Te’o may have been part of the ruse, noting a connection between Te’o and the person believed to be behind Te’o’s fake dead girlfriend’s Twitter account.

What we’re left with now is trying to sort everything out. If Te’o was in fact duped, how does that happen in 2012? Supposedly in a relationship for three years, how does Te’o not ever see his girlfriend in person? Notre Dame plays Stanford every season, and played there twice – 2009 and 2011 – and the ’09 game was when they supposedly met. No Skype? No webcam? No meeting in 2011? She couldn’t have come to the USC game in 2010? Is Te’o that naive? Was he being used for money?

Or, if Te’o was part of it, why would he do it? Was it an attempt for more media attention in his senior season to improve draft position? Was it something cooked up by Notre Dame PR to give their highest profile player some more exposure and a Heisman run in a weak field?

All of these seem a bit dubious. A college athlete isn’t exactly the best target for money, boosters be damned. A pro athlete you could see, but college? Not so much. And as for PR, it would have been just as easy to just push the “dead grandmother” story (which was legit) as it would have been to push the dual deaths. Tragic is tragic, and adding an additional death to one that actually happened seems like (pardon the wording) overkill.

So I’ve been going over “what if” scenarios in my head, and one keeps sticking over and over, and would make all the jokes all the more empty and kind of turn the accusing finger on society a bit.

What if Manti Te’o is gay? I’m not implying he is, nor do I have any evidence that he is, but think about it – what if he was?

Acceptance of homosexuals has grown over time, but in the sports world, that acceptance is far behind other areas of society. There are no openly homosexual athletes in the major professional sports leagues in the Unites States, and many athletes have stated on the record that they would not be comfortable having a gay teammate. On the college level, there have been some players who have come out after their playing career was over, but no college football player has come out while they were active to my knowledge, at least for a major program. This isn’t to say that there aren’t gay players in college football, but that if a college football player were gay, they would most likely go through great lengths to conceal that fact. Add onto that the fact that Te’o plays for the University of Notre Dame, arguably the highest profile Catholic university in the country. I don’t know if you know this or not, but the Catholics – not too big on the homosexuality thing. So yeah – a football player at Notre Dame probably wouldn’t want people to know he was gay. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the world we live in right now.

So let’s say Te’o is gay. He’d be in the closet, obviously, at least on campus. While a player wouldn’t necessarily be in a relationship their freshman year, he is a football player, and football players generally do not have a problem getting – well, let’s just say “temporary relationships” – from female fans. If a player is seen constantly rejecting advances from those fans, we’d like to think that his teammates would respect him for his high moral standards.

In reality, that doesn’t happen. Whispers and rumors start, and maybe a teammate makes an accusation, because OBVIOUSLY if a hot chick wants a one night stand with you and you reject it, you’re gay.

Welcome to the locker room.

Now, if you’re not gay, you can shrug it off because you’re not hiding anything. If you are, you might scramble for an excuse. What’s the best excuse when people think you don’t have a girlfriend? That you do have a girlfriend – you just don’t know her because she doesn’t live here. According to the South Bend Tribune, Te’o met his future girlfriend at Stanford at the last game of the 2009 Notre Dame season, Te’o’s freshman season. That seems to work nicely – after the season, the players have more time to be social. If questioned, maybe Te’o mentions a girl he met at the Stanford game, which explains why he hasn’t mentioned her during the season, and hey – Stanford isn’t exactly nearby, so yeah she won’t be visiting campus any time soon.

This satisfies curiosities enough for a bit, but as time goes on, maybe questions start to crop up again. Maybe rumors start swirling on campus again. Te’o is becoming more and more visible on campus as one of the stars of the suddenly relevant again football team. Are you sure he doesn’t have a girlfriend? Have you ever seen her? Does he even have a picture of her? Maybe he’s… you know…

So maybe Te’o reaches out to a friend for help. A college student not on some sort of social media? Too many questions are being asked. Could the friend set up a Facebook account so that he could get these people off his ass? The friend has a better plan – he’s got an already existing Twitter account that Te’o could “hook up with” – Twitter is easier to manage and doesn’t require as much info as a full Facebook page would, so it’s more ideal. Plus, he could make it private so that people could see that it existed, but couldn’t get much more.

We don’t know when the “@lovalovaloveYOU” Twitter account was originally created – maybe it already existed; maybe it was created for the sole purpose of giving Te’o’s “girlfriend” an online presence, but whatever the case may be – Ronaiah Tuiasosopo apparently had access to it. Tuiasosopo and Te’o aren’t strangers, so the connection is there.

The biggest problem starts to crop up as Te’o prepares to enter his senior season. More and more national attention begins to focus on him. News outlets want to know all about him – what’s he like at home? Does he have a favorite TV show? Who are his role models? Does he have a girlfriend?

Te’o can respond that he does.

“Can we talk to her?”

Uh oh.

When sportswriters want to do profiles on players, one of their favorite places to get quotes is from the girlfriend. Maybe there’s a good story on how they met, showing the “softer side” of the intimidating football player. Just saying “she doesn’t want to talk” isn’t going to cut it. Worse yet, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo – who was helping out with the Twitter thing – can’t help because he was in a car accident.

Wait – that’s it! She can’t talk because she was in a car accident! Sorry – maybe some other time!

This works in the short term, but eventually she’s going to have to get better. When you’re caught in a lie, it tends to get more and more desperate as the liar perceives people are catching on. What can he say that will get people to leave “her” alone?

I know – let’s give her cancer. Writers will back off on trying to interview a cancer patient for a fluff piece about a football player. Then, when Te’o’s grandmother really dies, maybe he decides then that his “girlfriend” dies too. He can stop trying to think of excuses, and hopefully the questions will end. No one will question why a football player isn’t dating anyone when they find out his last girlfriend recently died of cancer. Plus, he’s already mourning his grandmother, so his sadness won’t be acting. This should hold them off until the NFL Draft – really, that’s what we’re waiting for here – because if Te’o is outed before then, since there has never been an openly gay active player in the NFL, it would be a sincere fear that Te’o would lose potentially millions of dollars by dropping down in the draft due to teams being afraid to draft him because of “team chemistry” or other mysterious reasons. It’s possible he wouldn’t be drafted at all – insane for a player currently projected to be a top 15 pick.

But – whether Te’o intended to or not – his “girlfriend” and her death has become a rallying point. National media outlets jump onto the story bigtime, and his playing through tragedy becomes part of the image being put together to showcase Te’o as a Heisman Trophy candidate. The lie that he told four years ago – possibly only to protect his privacy and to allow him to play college football and make a career in the NFL – would not die.

Now, as most lies do, the whole thing is beginning to unravel. Deadspin breaks the story of Te’o’s girlfriend never existing, and Notre Dame and Te’o find themselves doing damage control, portraying Te’o sympathetically as someone whose innocence was shattered by some unnamed outside force. It’s an ideal defense – neither the school nor the player takes any blame, instead allowing the media to take the biggest hit for running with the story.

But in reality, Te’o could be a hell of a lot more of a sympathetic character if we later learn that all of this – the only reason his “girlfriend” existed in the first place – only happens because Te’o fears that the truth would end his football career.

And the sad reality is that it likely would.

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