Commentary

Interview shows Te'o's credulity

Originally Published: January 18, 2013
By Ted Miller | ESPN.com

The brutally unsentimental retelling of the Manti Te'o story feels like an open wound, a cautionary tale that teaches an unfortunate lesson: Trust is dangerous.

Yet some of the speculative detritus was swept away Friday night when Te'o sat down with ESPN's Jeremy Schaap for a 2½-hour, off-camera interview. The sprawling dialogue answered many questions but made the shocking turn of events no less dumbfounding.

What did seem to emerge is that Te'o was not complicit in the hoax that created a fake girlfriend for him so she could die a fake death and inspire Te'o and others who heard the fake story. "No, never," Te'o said when asked if he had any part in the ruse.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Ryan Jones/ESPN ImagesNotre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o discussed his situation for 2½ hours on Friday.

He, in fact, communicated with the alleged hoax perpetrator, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, on Jan. 16, the day Deadspin.com broke the story. Te'o said Tuiasosopo apologized and tried to explain himself. After the interview, Te'o showed Schaap Twitter direct messages from Tuiasosopo that contained an apology for orchestrating the hoax.

Te'o said he hopes Tuiasosopo learned a lesson but holds no ill-will toward him.

Some of us might not feel the same way. This hoax turned an enrapturing tale of tragic death, love and hope into baloney. We jammed Te'o into an inspirational hero archetype during the football season, but what we really were seeing was catfish, as we all have learned this week is the term for a fake, online relationship.

Speaking with Schaap, Te'o often cut the figure of an innocent who was duped by a complicated, stranger-than-David-Lynch scheme that involved multiple people assuming fake identities. But he also confesses to his own deceptions, most notably that he allowed his parents and reporters to believe he'd met the chimerical Lennay Kekua, largely because he was too embarrassed to admit his relationship existed entirely on the telephone and online.

Schaap would tell "SportsCenter" afterward that Te'o appeared composed and self-assured throughout the interview, as if he were glad to unburden himself. But there will be plenty who are still skeptical of his actions, his apparent naïvety and his spectacular lack of judgment.

The first contact between Te'o and Kekua happened on Facebook after the football season during the winter of Te'o's freshman year, but it didn't develop into a strong relationship -- albeit with no personal contact -- until Kekua was seriously injured in a fictional traffic accident in April 2012. Kekua's death was faked on Sept. 12, the same day Te'o's grandmother died. She then called Te'o on Dec. 6 to say she was still alive and had faked her death due to problems with drug dealers.

That's not even the weirdest part. In the interview, Te'o believed he was talking to a girl he called "U'ilani," purportedly Kekua's sister.

Te'o: "She said, 'Well, Manti, it's me.' That's all she said. And I played stupid for a little bit. I was like, 'Oh, I know it's you, [U'ilani]. What do you mean?' And she's like, 'No, Manti, it's me.' She kept going back and forth. 'It's me.' I eventually just gave up and said, 'Who is me?' And she said, 'It's Lennay.' So we carried on that conversation, and I just got mad. I just went on a rampage. 'How could you do this to me?'"

Indeed. But it doesn't end there. Te'o told Schaap he still didn't know what to believe at that point. He said he still didn't know he was being duped. In fact, conversations between the two continued through the national title game on Jan. 7 and beyond. A group of people connected to Tuiasosopo allegedly showed up at Te'o's hotel the weekend before the game in Miami after his curfew.

This is important because it shows Te'o's stunning credulity. Even in January, he claims he was still uncertain of what was going on.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Ryan Jones/ESPNTe'o appeared composed and collected during his interview with ESPN on Friday.

Schaap: "I don't mean to make light of this in any way, Manti. But you've demonstrated a remarkable degree of patience with these people. Why?"

Te'o: "It was all to find out the answer. What the answer was. Because I needed to know. No matter how much patience, I needed to clear my head of what was going on. The only way to clear my head is if I knew what the truth was. Whether she was real, whether she wasn't real. I needed to know."

Can we completely buy in to Te'o's account? It's important to note that since the story broke, Te'o has been huddled with advisors. His agent, Tom Condon, has every sort of public relations, crisis management professional on his speed dial. The prime directive of this brain trust is not to provide you the honest and entire truth. It is to ferret out a plausible version of events that best protects Te'o's interests. Without, of course, getting caught in an obvious lie.

So it's fair to reserve some skepticism. We, too, after all, have been duped.

Most of us are very different than Te'o, and that is part of the challenge of wrapping our minds around this story. This is a young man, a fantastic athlete living in the public eye, who was apparently content discussing Bible verses on a near-nightly basis with a girlfriend with whom he'd never held hands.

He was willing to buy every explanation from her, even that she might not have really died when he thought she did. When we all thought she did.

If there is a positive takeaway from the Schaap interview it's that Te'o's downward transformation from inspiration bottoms out only at dupe, not villain. But our collective willingness to trust, to believe in a great story -- Lance Armstrong! -- has again taken a blow.

Perhaps that's a cold lesson that's for the best.

Ted Miller | email

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