BRADENTON, Fla. – This is no place to spend the worst week of your life.
Manti Te'o, the Heisman Trophy finalist and NFL draft prospect at the center of one of the most troubling sports stories in memory, has been behind the gates and guard shacks of the IMG Academy here as the story of his fake girlfriend played out for the world to dissect. The saga has raised hundreds of questions, but one more needs to be asked:
Why is he here?
That's an easy one to answer on one level: Te'o is training for his dream of playing in the NFL. The IMG Academy is a great place to do that, with its hundreds of acres of state-of-the-art athletic facilities, its well-accommodated dorms, and its relaxing front-of-property clubhouse with a full kitchen and comfy chairs to sit and talk after the end of a long day of workouts. This is a fantastic place for football preparation. It is not, however, an ideal place for emotional healing.
Regardless of whether Te'o is completely to blame for this mess or not at all to blame for this mess, he needs time and space to come to terms with what's happened. If he made Lennay Kekua up on his own (which seems incredibly far-fetched), he needs mental help. If he was completely duped for years and he went along with it to protect himself and his school, he needs professional support.
He does not need to be in a football complex that looks like a space-aged Florida retirement home.
Yet everyone is still focusing on football, and nobody seems to be discussing the enormous psychological toll weighing on a football player.
Te'o has been in a football setting through nearly this entire ordeal. He played a game right after the loss of his grandmother, which teammates, media, and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick praised him for doing. Te'o's Heisman story launched not because he had a great game against Michigan State, but because he had a great game against Michigan State while dealing with personal tragedy. The message was clear: This is about playing football through loss, not about responding to loss with a step away from football.
After the entire girlfriend story crumbled in late December (at least according to Swarbrick's account), and an investigation firm was hired to look into details of a deeply personal hoax, Te'o not only went to Miami with his team but participated in practice and answered media questions about his not-yet-publicly-fake girlfriend. This was after a month of travel for awards and publicity and the Heisman. Te'o played in the national title game, struggled, and then had to once again deal with the virtual certainty that the hoax was about to become public – either from his own lips or though a media outlet. There was internal debate and pressure, according to Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde, about what to do with this information.
Where did Te'o go? Here, to Florida, to train for the NFL draft. According to an IMG employee, Te'o was at the academy the day news of the hoax broke.
Deadspin broke the story Wednesday, and the voice we heard was Swarbrick's. The athletic director's explanation was emotional and, depending on your point of view, noble. But it did not come from a director of student affairs. It came from an athletic director. This story had everything to do with a student in crisis, yet it was addressed by a sports figure.
Swarbrick apparently went to great lengths to find out the truth, detailing a thorough investigation that took place over the last month. He did not, however, go to great lengths to describe the counseling Te'o surely needed after such a terrible ordeal. Nobody in sports talks about that, no matter how many athletes self-destruct under the pressure of keeping up appearances.
"The single most trusting human being that I have ever met," Swarbrick said, in clearly heartfelt words, "will never be able to trust again."
That's a devastating statement, reflective of a devastating situation. But Swarbrick did not say Te'o needs plenty of time and space to reflect before addressing this situation publicly.
Apparently, what Te'o needs is more football practice.
Everyone wants to hear from Te'o. That's why reporters (this one included) spent a Thursday camping out in a high school parking lot across the street from the IMG complex. Throughout the day, while athletes behind the gates ventured out to a sparkling training complex for practice, pundits on sports radio insisted that the longer Te'o spends in silence, the worse he looks. There was also debate about what this is doing to his draft stock. There was little, if any, discussion of what the lasting effects of this could be on Te'o as a human being. The world wants answers now, even though it will take Te'o months or years to arrive at answers to why he was drawn to Lennay Kekua, a girl he never met.
Perhaps Te'o isn't speaking because he's enmeshed in a web of untruths and he can't account for all the tales he's weaved. If he sits down with Jeremy Schaap, one of the sharpest interviewers in sports, he could easily get caught in that web and humiliated further.
It's likely that Te'o lied at least somewhat. According to Swarbrick, Te'o learned of the hoax on Dec. 6. Two day later at the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York City, Te'o told ESPN that he'll "never forget the time when I found out that, you know, my girlfriend passed away." But let's put ourselves in Te'o's position. Let's play Truth or Consequences.
The team is undefeated, you are being credited with leading Notre Dame back to glory, and Sports Illustrated or ESPN sits you down for an interview. They do not want to know about blitzing schemes; they want to know about your girlfriend. You have never met her. Do you tell the truth? Do you face the consequences? Do you risk the wrath of the most famous football institution in the world and the derision of an entire nation? Do you risk the season your teammates have worked so hard to build? Do you risk their national championship dreams and the millions of dollars that went into them?
Or do you go along with it? Do you give the media what it wants? Do you give the Notre Dame football machine what it wants? Do you give your own football machine what you think it needs?
Perhaps Manti Te'o made his girlfriend up. Perhaps his girlfriend was made up for him. But once he got to this hamster wheel of a college football season, with practice after practice, game after game, interview after interview, and pressure point after pressure point, there was no way to get off it. Not in the football world where quitting – or even taking a knee – is frowned upon. Not in a world run by a hard-charging millionaire coach who turns beet-red and screams when a player misses a blocking assignment, let alone tells lies to the world. Do you think Manti Te'o would have been a Heisman finalist had he told Brian Kelly he needed a week off to deal with a personal crisis? Quite the contrary: He was a Heisman finalist because he did not take a week off to handle a personal crisis.
That's the message we have all sent to college football players.
The world is waiting outside the football gates for Manti Te'o. If he decides to leave the cocoon for a week or a month, here on the eve of the NFL draft season, he may face untold scrutiny and perhaps the unraveling of a lucrative career.
He must know this on some level. That explains the last sentence of the statement he released Wednesday: "Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I'm looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL draft."
So Te'o stays, and he plays. That's the only thing he's done all season. That might be the only choice a young man in serious trouble really has.
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