Commentary

Te'o's answers prove unsatisfying

His much-anticipated media session does little to douse hoax controversy

Originally Published: February 23, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL combine has had some crazy moments.

In my first combine in 1990, I remember linebacker Keith McCants' calling out Junior Seau and other defenders in that draft, saying he was the best and challenging them to any type of competition. Of course, the time was different then. Only a half-dozen reporters attended.

I remember seeing Ryan Leaf, chubby and out of shape, stand before a few dozen reporters toward the back of a hotel bar telling us how he was in great shape and ready to rule the NFL.

Maurice Clarett's news conference was a dandy. After getting kicked out of Ohio State and failing to win a court battle against the NFL to challenge the three-year eligibility rule, Clarett announced, "It's a humbling thing being humble," and then ran so slow in the 2005 combine it was obvious he wasn't going to have a long NFL career.

We've seen a news conference in which an Olympic sprinter promoted a fast track in the old RCA Dome and then ran a 4.8 40 because the surface was placed over an already slow artificial surface.

Then there was the Tim Tebow news conference. The overflow crowd was so large it pushed into the Colt McCoy interview at the podium.

But Manti Te'o's news conference topped anything I've seen in 24 years of combine watching. In fitting fashion, the player trying to explain his mysterious imaginary girlfriend had a false start on his news conference.

Expecting a news conference at noon, the media filled all the seats, photographers pressed against each other in the photo stand, and others with cameras or smartphones took overview pictures of the scene. Then longtime NFL scout and general manager Gil Brandt announced that the Te'o news conference would start at 3 p.m.

Reporters joked that Te'o wasn't there, but his girlfriend was. One reporter approached the empty podium and asked, "So, did you love him?"

[+] EnlargeManti Teo
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesManti Te'o opened his news conference with a prepared statement that struck reporters as naive.

Finally, Te'o made his entrance just after 2 p.m. He cut off questions at 14 minutes, 24 seconds. Of the 36 questions asked, he answered 20 on "catfishing," a term for fake Internet relationships.

To use the word awkward would be an understatement. Te'o undoubtedly was coached by his agents and public relations experts, but he appeared uncomfortable answering the hard questions, which were expected.

In college and life, Te'o appears to be a man of actions not words. Clearly, he isn't Robert Griffin III, who won over the media more than any athlete who ever attended the scouting combine in Indianapolis. Last year, Griffin was engaging, entertaining and intelligent, talking both life and football with ease.

Te'o is a private person asked to reveal the most embarrassing months of his life before cameras, recorders and notebooks. He said teams asked him to lay out the facts. He didn't deliver.

He summarized the fabricated relationship with a woman named Lennay Kekua -- a hoax Ronaiah Tuiasosopo claims to have perpetuated -- this way: "I cared for somebody, and that's what I was taught to do. Ever since I was young, when someone needs help, you help them out. Unfortunately, it didn't end up the way I thought it would."

That's an understatement. In September, Te'o told reporters the woman died of leukemia. Before the BCS title game against Alabama, Te'o has said, he learned the woman did not exist.

That would suggest Te'o is young and gullible. As much as I hate to say it, he may be acting the same way with the media.

He opened the news conference with a statement that was clearly naive:

"About the incident, I said all I needed to say about that. How I'm handling it going forward is doing what I'm doing right now -- focusing on the moment, focusing on football and focusing on the combine. Not everybody gets this opportunity to be here. I'm sure there's thousands and thousands of people that would like to be here in Indianapolis. Just trying to enjoy the moment."

He wanted the media to move on. That won't happen. The imaginary girlfriend story will stick with him until he gets on the football field in September and adds the next chapter to his story.

This is an age of instant information. Te'o did not advance the story, so the media will continue to press for more.

He has to understand the age of the Internet. No matter how poorly Tebow plays as a quarterback, his persona remains as big in the pros as it was when he was at Florida and at the combine.

Te'o did the minimum to repair his reputation. His college football résumé can negate the damage and allow him to be the first-round pick everyone expects. More damaging would be running worse than a 4.65 40 on Monday, leading teams to question whether he has the speed to be an every-down linebacker.

Reputations die hard, and negative stories can have long shelf lives. Te'o can do little to change that. Maybe if he gave a long, detailed explanation of the Lennay Kekua relationship, the media would move on. But he didn't, so reporters will continue to ask and Te'o will continue to dodge.


John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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