Three Card Manti: Why the Media Is Swallowing Manti Te'o's New Narrative

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 in 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 only consciously lied about his imaginary girlfriend 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 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 it’s 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, death, mourning, and 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 the way 24-hour sports media is 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 to never trust. It’s also a story, barring new information, which 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.

[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the SportsWorld Upside Down” (The New Press) Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.]

8 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Sports Journalism-- Your College Town Could Use Some

College sports is so seldom asked to justify itself. Subscribers and viewers just don't want anyone to rain on the inspirational riff.

This seems so weird because sports generates actual stories that are more interesting if you ditch the narratives.

I am at a point where I could not stomach seeing my kid at a school with a top-level sports program. They just aren't accountable enough.

Students riot and the President of the College CANNOT suspend the program? The tail is wagging the dog.

Sports Illustrated

The worst journalism ethics weren't mentioned in Dave's piece. The fact that Pete Thamel said they checked certain elements of Kekua's story and when they could not verify them, instead of scrapping the story, Thamel said they "wrote around them."

That shit doesn't even fly at College Newspapers.

Uncloseted

For weeks I've thought the simplest explanation for this elaborate hoax is that Te'o is gay. (Denise posted a comment to that effect after Dave's January 18th installment on this story.)

Rather than mull over the mendacity of a top athlete at one of the more corrupt programs in the US, it's better to think of the impact if Te'o does come out. Notre Dame would have some explaining to do, and it would be a shot across Roger Goodell's cretinous bow.

What Man With These Qualities...

...has to invent an imaginary girlfriend, as if he were among the nerdiest men on campus? LOL. Sorry, but it's just too funny for me. He's physically gifted enough to play football at a major college. In our athlete worshiping culture any many in this guy's shoes who has the least interest in relationships with females should have no trouble finding himself a girlfriend on campus.

So this obviously invites speculation about sexual orientation. Could also be related to personal beliefs given that I've heard is a Mormon. Still leaves you wonder why this story was spun in the first place and having a second laugh over the hoax explanation for how this all happened.

Anyway, whatever the truth behind this story is, the chances of my desire to see death to Notre Dame football are even slimmer than Manti's are of having a real girlfriend in 2013.

Manti etc.

Dave, you are entitled to your opinion here. But really this story, and anything connected with Notre Dame seems to bring out the typically polarzing feelings that so many seem to have about the school. It is not a perfect place by any means, but calling it the most corrupt program in the country is a bit extreme in my opinion. What do you base that on? I heard you bring up the tragic cases of Lizzy Seeberg and Declan Sullivan today on the radio, as in the last few minutes of the show you were trying to make some kind of point. Look at the facts of both cases and tell me what you would have the school do. The New York Times pubished a story on December 29th last year about how the Sullivan family is dealing with the tragedy- and I am sure it re-trauamatizes them all over again to have journalists drag it out and try to somehow connect it to the Manti T'eo story. I don't disagree football is a very deep part of American culture- and money is a corrupting force throughout our society, but the pile on of hate to this kid and the program is beyond reason. I had my doubts in the beginning, but what I have come to believe is that this guy is just terribly naive. I think he is deeply devoted to his faith and his family, and very sheltered. So many people have dragged out this story to the point where it seems more about people like Rick's (previous commentator) desire to see "death to Notre Dame football". WTF? Seriously, I think you need to examine your own prejudices here.

To Karen

Well stated.

To Karen

The oft-repeated statement "haters gonna hate" is at once both trite and true. And hate doesn't depend on reason or fact to promulgate--and it serves to undermine any valid message that the writer has to share.
I'm glad you called out Mr Zirin, it needed to be done. Don't expect it to change his perspective, haters hold on to their bias like a little dog yapping at the fence as you walk by. Best course of action is to move on and let the yapping fade into background noise.

Teo

I think he's gay and he cannot be open about it;because it would end his career. He's the best player on a high profile program, college girls are throwing themselves at his feet how could he explain his lack of interest? He concocts a phoney girlfriend to which he is devoted. This is only a theory of course. It's a non story that has been blown out of proportion, which to me is the real story. I wish him the best.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com