Thursday, January 17, 2013
Was Manti Te'o a schemer or prey?
By Gene Wojciechowski ESPN.com
Serial liar Lance Armstrong will supposedly bare part of his soul on Thursday evening. Eventually, Manti Te'o will be asked to do the same. Television cameras will become their separate confessionals and, once both have spoken, they'll have told their versions of the truth.
Armstrong, the disgraced cyclist and career cheater, we were prepared for. His deceit was decades in the making.
Which story to believe about Notre Dame's Manti Te'o is still unknown.
But until the mushroom cloud of a Deadspin report enveloped his life Wednesday, Te'o was considered to be all that was right and good about college football. He was more than an All-American linebacker from Notre Dame; he was an ideal, a template for integrity, compassion and humility.
Te'o might still be all of those things. Or none of them. We still don't know for sure.
We do know he issued a statement saying that he was the victim of an elaborate online and telephonic deception. We know that his "girlfriend," and her death from leukemia, were the figments of someone's depraved imagination. What we don't know is whether Te'o's imagination was involved in the deception.
Notre Dame says it wasn't. ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick did more than vouch for Te'o's reputation; he all but dared anyone to question it. The victim, said Swarbrick, wasn't simply Te'o himself, but also Te'o's innocence, his unconditional desire to help others.
"There's a lot of tragedy here," said Swarbrick in a Wednesday evening news conference. "There's a lot of sorrow here. But the thing I am most sad of, sad about -- sorry That the single most trusting human being I've ever met will never be able to trust in the same way again in his life. That's an incredible tragedy."
Swarbrick had to compose himself during the middle of that statement. Such is the level of his admiration for Te'o and the level of contempt for those whom he said did this to the Notre Dame star.
There was no wiggle room in Swarbrick's comments. He gave his unequivocal support and did so after citing the results of a private investigation commissioned by the university. In the end, said Swarbrick, Te'o was on the wrong end of a "very sophisticated hoax perpetrated for reasons we can't fully understand, but had a certain cruelty at its core."
I sat across from Te'o in the fall and listened to him tell his story of heartbreak. You know the details by now: On the same horrific day, he had learned that his grandmother had died, followed hours later by what he said was the news that his girlfriend -- the apparently fictitious Lennay Kekua -- had also passed away.
If he was lying, it was a performance for the ages. And if he wasn't, then clearly he believed, with all his heart, that both his beloved grandmother and Lennay had died within six hours of one another.
There remain those who simply can't believe that Te'o wasn't somehow complicit in the hoax. Nobody, they say, could be that naive, that trusting.
And despite Swarbrick's reasoned, passionate and mostly convincing defense of Te'o, there remain more than a few questions about the details of this bizarre, surreal story. Swarbrick's explanations were plausible, even believable, but in some instances, the Notre Dame AD said he couldn't comment on certain questions. Instead, he deferred to Te'o.
This can play out only two ways. Either Te'o is telling the truth or he's a Lance Armstrong-caliber liar. Either he is a victim of a pitiless hoax or part architect of it.
I want to believe Swarbrick. I want to believe Te'o. I want to believe there is a special place in hell for those who would prey on a person's better angels.
This is a story like no other. Armstrong Te'o. You can't make this stuff up.
Oh, wait -- apparently you can.