On an unnerving night when it was hard to know what to believe and who to trust, Jack Swarbrick convinced me.
Chin quivering and voice catching, the Notre Dame athletic director fought emotion in describing Manti Te'o as "the single most trusting individual I have ever met." I know Swarbrick fairly well over the course of maybe two dozen interactions, both professional and personal – well enough to have a read on his personality. This was not a high-paid suit engaged in damage control; this was a man who sincerely believes that the most popular Fighting Irish football player in decades was wronged far more than he was wrong.
Swarbrick came to his Wednesday news conference armed with enough information to be certain that Te'o was the victim, not the perpetrator, of a vile hoax.
After listening to him, I believe Notre Dame.
The next step will be to see whether we can believe Manti Te'o when he addresses the story that stunned America. He has some explaining to do, but I believe that task was made easier by what Swarbrick said Wednesday.
[Related: Notre Dame AD: 'Incredible tragedy' | Statement about hoax]
He spent about 45 minutes describing, very clearly, the sequence of events behind the school's investigation of a macabre ruse: Te'o's well-publicized "girlfriend," who allegedly died of cancer in September, never existed. Her "death," said to be on the same September day as the linebacker's grandmother, had become part of the compelling Te'o narrative that captivated the nation.
The storyline went like this: star athlete plays through tragedy, delivers an inspired performance just days after the deaths of loved ones, and perseveres nobly through his grief in the coming weeks as he and his team deliver a storybook season.
The media, of course, bathed in it. Due to the rapidly accelerating news cycle (and probably outright laziness), we have developed a bad habit of simply repeating stories without independently verifying them.
While I don't believe I would have come away from a Te'o interview on this subject smelling a rat, I am now reminded of an old journalistic axiom that needs reviving: If your mother says she loves you, believe her. But check it out.
We didn't check it out. Not well enough. And so it perpetuated.
Even by the Notre Dame standards of myth and lore, this was quite a story. Unfortunately, it was rooted in a lie – just as Knute Rockne's famed "Win one for the Gipper" speech of 1928 is believed to be rooted in a lie.
The question is, whose lie?
Swarbrick says a private investigator hired by Notre Dame to look into the matter has evidence that Te'o was victimized by individuals who invented an online girl and engaged her in a relationship with the player. Due to privacy concerns, the school is not in a position to release that evidence, but hopefully Te'o will provide some documentation that corroborates what Swarbrick said.
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.
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.
It would take a remarkable level of naiveté to be sucked in by the perpetrators of this hoax, but Te'o could be that guy. At the risk of stereotyping, I'll offer this conjecture: Te'o is a Mormon, and there are a lot of LDS members who lack significant romantic experience when entering young adulthood. Courtship might have been a novel and/or highly idealized concept. Physical interaction might not have been at the top of his relationship wish list.
Whatever the reasons, Te'o must at this point make as honest an accounting of himself as he can. It won't be fun, or easy. But it is better to be humiliated for being a romantic rube than to be characterized as the kind of calculating scum who would orchestrate or perpetrate such a hoax in an effort at self-promotion or sympathy.
Deadspin, too, must be willing to make an accounting of itself. The website said it went to the following lengths to round out its story: "We called a cellphone for Manti Te'o, but the number we had is not accepting calls. Brian Te'o, Manti's father, was in a meeting when we called, according to a text message he sent in response. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo [believed to be behind the hoax] did not answer his phone or respond to multiple text messages. We left a message with Notre Dame earlier this afternoon. We'll update with comments when and if we get any."
Deadspin did not wait to hear from Notre Dame, which had investigated the hoax. But it did quote an anonymous friend of Tuiasosopo saying he was "80 percent sure" that Manti Te'o was "in on it," and that the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua's death with publicity in mind.
That's a significant, character-assassinating allegation to pin on a source who is "80 percent sure."
There are lessons to be learned from all this, but in the end I'm not sure anyone will come out of it better for the experience. The sad takeaway is that we once again must raise our levels of disbelief and distrust. Already a cynical society, we apparently need to ramp up the cynicism a little more. Because there are plenty of people out there ready, willing and more able than ever through the anonymity of the Internet, to perpetrate a lie.
And the next time we come across a feel-good story, we'll all have to stop and ask ourselves whether we're willing to believe it. That doesn't feel very good.
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