It’s time for Manti Te’o to talk.
If we haven’t heard from him by Friday afternoon, it will be 48 hours since Deadspin deconstructed the myth of the former Notre Dame linebacker’s dead girlfriend – a central part of Te’o’s very compelling storyline this past fall. The sole response so far from Te’o has been a statement saying he was the victim of "a sick joke" – that Te’o was duped by online connivers into believing Lennay Kekua was real.
And 48 hours is too long to let something like this fester without addressing it and answering questions, in public, for everyone to see. Not with his credibility at stake.
Sources with both Notre Dame and ESPN told me an interview was arranged with Jeremy Schaap for Thursday night, but then it was called off "for now," according to one source. No explanation was offered as to why it was called off, or who called it off.
The interview needs to be rescheduled for Friday. This needs to get done. Silence isn’t helping the Heisman Trophy runner-up’s contention that he’s the victim in all this.
It is still a believable contention, at least in part. The intersection of love, death, fame and a scam is a crowded, complicated place. Nev Schulman, creator and executive producer of "Catfish," the documentary about people conned by online predators, told ESPN he believes Te’o’s version of events. And as much as we’d all like to think we’re armchair experts on this stuff, Schulman really is.
But even at the risk of considerable embarrassment and pain, it’s time to say something.
There have been at least two delays in getting the story out. As Yahoo! Sports reported Thursday, Notre Dame officials were expecting a public acknowledgement of the hoax from Te’o and his agent, Tom Condon, on Monday of this week. That didn’t happen, which gave Deadspin control of breaking the story.
Notre Dame was quick to hold its own press conference Wednesday night, in which athletic director Jack Swarbrick detailed a timeline of events that included the school hiring a private investigative firm to look into the matter. Swarbrick said the investigative report given to the school concluded that Te’o was the victim of a hoax and not a perpetrator of it.
But the linebacker needs to back up that report with his own words – and some documentation would be nice, too. Sources told Yahoo! Sports he shared phone records and other information with investigators, and it would help to make those part of whatever presentation he makes.
In the meantime, since nature and the news cycle abhors a vacuum, more stories came out Thursday while Te’o stayed off-radar. Among them was an ESPN report that an unnamed player said Te’o’s Fighting Irish teammates knew Lennay Kekua wasn’t really the player’s girlfriend, but Te’o went along with the storyline because of the positive attention.
So we can add that to the list of questions Te’o needs to answer. These are some others I mentioned in my column Wednesday night:
Te'o must also explain why he said he met Lennay Kekua, when that apparently never happened. He must explain why his father, Brian, also said the two met. He must explain why, if he felt for this dying girl the way he reportedly did, he never left the Notre Dame campus to be with her near the end – not at the hospital, not at the grave. He must explain why he went along with the storyline instead of publicly correcting the record, even after telling his coaches and Swarbrick about the hoax on Dec. 26.
These were the possible explanations I offered:
Perhaps he liked the sound of it, and the way he was portrayed because of it – the heroic athlete overcoming heartbreaking adversity, enduring a romance doomed by death. Perhaps he was never as into the girl as he said – not the first young person to enhance the depth of a relationship, for dramatic effect or otherwise. Perhaps he simply embellished aspects of the relationship because, frankly, it would be embarrassing for a star athlete to tell the truth: I corresponded with this girl online and, no, I've never actually met her.
The premise that many in today’s for-or-against world – nothing in between – seem unwilling to entertain is this: Te’o was duped and embellished to enhance a flattering storyline. Maybe it’s not all black or white.
And given the timeline, it is easy to see where a pattern of playing up the story became a rhetorical prison as the Notre Dame season and Te’o’s own star turn reached a crescendo.
In late September, Te’o at least ostensibly believed his girlfriend was real and had died. Teammates, coaches and others have described his grief in reaction to the news, most notably in Pete Thamel’s transcripts of his Sports Illustrated interviews that were published Thursday. At that point, the idea of him crassly playing up the story to accrue Heisman Trophy consideration is far-fetched – he simply was not on the Heisman radar then.
In the weeks that followed, the story was told and re-told – often without a lot of specific input on the girlfriend from Te’o himself. His father, Brian, shared many of the details that turned out to be untrue.
While in Orlando for the ESPN awards show in early December, Te’o was contacted by someone purporting to be his dead girlfriend. According to sources, it took an unnerved Te’o several more conversations over the course of 10 days to become convinced that he was the victim of a hoax. He hadn’t told his parents yet, much less anyone at the school.
The disclosure to those people began Christmas Eve and extended through Dec. 27. By then, Te’o was finished with media obligations until the team arrived in South Florida for the BCS championship game. Notre Dame’s private investigation was underway, and would be until Jan. 4.
If you want to believe Te’o and Notre Dame should have come forward there, in that setting, and blown the whistle on the charade, be my guest. What school in America would volunteer that shocking, salacious, downright weird story to a national media horde in the days before playing for the national title?
I’ll answer that: none. And plenty of schools have been known to cover up far worse.
So Notre Dame and Te’o sat on it through a very miserable football game, in which no Irish player performed more miserably than Te’o. Coincidence or not, he bore scant resemblance to the linebacker who led America’s best scoring defense all season.
The failure came in the days after that game. Too much circling of the wagons and internal debate, too little forthcoming truth. There was time to tell this story, and it never got told until Deadspin published.
And that’s still the pattern Manti Te’o is in. He’s let at least two opportunities to tell his side of the story pass, and his reputation has suffered because of it. It’s time to get behind a microphone and explain.
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