- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Between now and draft day, Manti Te'o could do a number of things that determine where he lands in the first round, or if he lands in the first round at all. He might ace the combine drills and Wonderlic test, or botch his job interviews, or throw out his back, or weigh in with an impressive body-fat percentage for a man his size.
He could do all of the above, too.
But the lies he told in prolonging the great girlfriend hoax of the century shouldn't dissuade the New York Jets from taking him at No. 9, or the New York Giants from taking him at No. 19, or any franchise in need of linebacker help from taking him at any slot.
Te'o has told his story to ESPN's Jeremy Schaap in an off-camera interview last week, and to Katie Couric in an on-camera interview to air Thursday, a snapshot of which has already played on "Good Morning America." His story goes something like this:
He had no hand in creating the hoax. He was moved by potential embarrassment to lie to his father and the news media about meeting his supposed girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, face to face when he'd only communicated with her online and by phone. He was confused when he spoke publicly of her death (Kekua was said to have died of cancer in September, hours after Teo's grandmother died) and its profound impact on him after receiving a Dec. 6 phone call from a woman purporting to be Kekua. He didn't fully accept that the hoax was indeed a hoax until the man he believes perpetrated it, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, confessed to him on Jan. 16, the very day Deadspin revealed it.
The bizarre tale leaves a consumer with the following conclusions to choose from:
(A) Te'o was a hopelessly naïve Notre Dame student who's now telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
(B) Te'o was in on the scam from the start, and used the tragic narrative to enhance his bid for a Heisman Trophy he wouldn't win.
(C) Te'o is clearly a victim who was never in on it, but isn't telling the whole truth about what he knew and when he knew it.
The guess here is a majority of reasonable observers would gravitate toward C and the belief Te'o is likely a decent kid who is coming clean in a way his agent and crisis managers would define coming clean. There could be a lot of money at stake here, and Camp Te'o's chief goal is to make sure the linebacker doesn't lose any of it.
But let's assume that the crux of Te'o's explanation is true, that he made a choice after the Dec. 6 call he never should've made, the choice of saving himself and his team from a disclosure that could've tainted a charmed season and disrupted Notre Dame's preparation for its BCS title-game matchup with Alabama.
He would then be guilty only of making a really dumb decision, something even the most responsible college kids do once or twice before making it to commencement. And in a sport that recruits, drafts and employs college and pro athletes whose dumb decisions include offenses that make Te'o's a jaywalking violation in comparison, the linebacker doesn't deserve a draft-day penalty in April on top of the public humiliation he's enduring now.
"I don't know if he's going to be a great player on Sundays or not," one longtime NFL executive and talent evaluator said Wednesday, "but from what we know now I can't see this damaging his status.
"We go back to junior high in researching these kids, and every player has three or four scouts now assigned to him for that research. You go back to junior high because that's really when some of these kids start getting recruited, and usually if there's an issue with a player you don't see an isolated behavior problem, but a pattern of behavior problems. You see signs somewhere along the line.
"After this you might launch a whole new research project on Te'o to make sure about him, to see if there's some kind of honesty problem. But if what you see now is all there is to it, it won't affect him."
And it shouldn't.
The offenses that would drop a prospect in the draft, the talent evaluator said, "are major offenses. Breaking the law. Particularly a history of breaking the law."
Te'o has no known history of that. For now, he's guilty only of incredibly poor judgment in misleading people with a story he admitted to Schaap he "tailored."
The talent evaluator was asked if his assessment of Te'o would change if evidence ultimately surfaces that the Notre Dame star had indeed been complicit in the hoax all along.
"It could," he said. "But I can't just go on a headline. I'd have to know more about the person from our research. Based on what we have right now, Te'o should go in the draft where his ability says he should go."
According to ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., Te'o has enough ability to be the No. 6 overall pick and the first inside linebacker drafted. Though Te'o was dreadful against Alabama, the talent evaluator said, "You can't wipe out a player off a bowl game or all-star game after he's had a five-week layoff. If he has all the attributes and it's suddenly not there for one game, you tend to put it aside."
Of course, Te'o has an excuse for the Alabama game that could actually help him with interested NFL teams. He took the field knowing that his world was about to come undone, that the scam would soon be exposed. Wasn't he trying to manage an unmanageable burden against the Crimson Tide despite his claim to the contrary?
Either way, if the linebacker-needy Jets list him as the best available prospect on their draft board, they should take Te'o if he falls to No. 9. Ditto for the Giants if Te'o slips all the way to 19.
He isn't Lance Armstrong, a grown-up who long ago earned his doctorate in deceit and intimidation. Assuming he's telling most of the truth, if not all of it, Te'o is merely a silly college kid who made a fool of himself.
It seems he's already paid a heavy enough price for that.
Manti Te'o's lies in the great girlfriend hoax shouldn't dissuade NFL scouts.