When a public figure does something wrong, whether it's a case of willful misconduct or extreme naiveté, in my eyes that person is defined more by how they react and atone for their misstep than by the misstep itself.
I realize in today's social media fueled, 24-hour news cycle, where stories get thrown onto Twitter with nary a parsing of the truth and get subsequently devoured by the masses, snark and sanctimony pitchforks fully drawn, that my view is a bit old school. Giving people a chance to explain themselves or show contrition is very 2008, I know.
Which brings us to former (by about two weeks) Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, and the recent unraveling of the flowery tale of his deceased girlfriend, who as it turns out not only didn't pass away on September 12, but actually never really existed to begin with.
Te'o's contention, via a press release Wednesday night, was that he was the victim of an elaborate "Catfish"-style hoax, duped for the better part of three years into thinking that Lennay Kekua (the name of his alleged girlfriend) was a real person. Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick backed up Te'o's contention in a press conference of his own Wednesday night.
The more information that has come out (including alleged confessions of the mastermind behind the hoax, Roniah Tuiasosopo), the more Te'o's version of the truth seems to stand up (as much as any story can seem plausible in this entire, bizarre saga). However, the surreal nature of this whole story is matched only by the incompetence with which Te'o has handled his business in the aftermath.
First, instead of coming clean at some point and calling a press conference to announce his discoveries (I would have been fine if he did this a day or two after the BCS title game), Te'o let the story fester and eventually Deadspin broke the news, and was able to steer public perception by including an anonymous quote from someone close to the story that they were "80 percent sure" that Te'o was in on the hoax from the beginning.
Then, when the time finally arrived for Te'o to come clean and answer questions (after a quasi-plea to do so from Swarbrick himself), he chose to do it in an off camera interview with a handpicked reporter (in this case, Jeremy Schaap of ESPN).
Te'o's story is one of an innocent victim. His subsequent actions since finding out the purported truth make it seem like he's hiding something. As good as Manti Te'o is at playing inside linebacker, he's clearly got a long way to go in understanding the ways of the world. His falling for the hoax and his explaining it both bear that out.
As for the interview with Schaap, it lasted two and a half hours and, if you have a few vacation days to burn, you can read the transcript. If you're short on time, I've picked out a few of the highlights and pasted them below, along with my commentary:
Te'o on how he met Kekua
MANTI TE'O: It was Facebook -- she friend requested me on Facebook the winter of my freshman year at Notre Dame. And I introduced myself through message via Facebook. I just -- simple, I'm Manti. I saw you friend requested me, feel free to talk. Just simple, general introductions. And we just got to know each other just as acquaintances. It was nothing big, nothing spectacular, nothing greater than that.
SP: This is the first thing that jumped out at me. If I'm reading this correctly, Manti Te'o actually initiated the original contact with Lennay Kekua. (NOTE: Throughout the interview with Schaap, Te'o continually refers to Kekua as if she were a real person, so if you find me doing that during this recap, blame Manti.) If Te'o introduced himself to Kekua, that has to go down as one of the all time instances of "wish I could take that one back." Wow. And by the way, little known fact, I am friends with Te'o on Facebook. He never introduced himself to me! I'm more than a little hurt, Manti.
Te'o on staying on the phone with her all night
JEREMY SCHAAP: How often would you communicate after she got out of the coma?
MANTI TE'O: Every day.
JEREMY SCHAAP: Every day?
MANTI TE'O: Every day. I slept on the phone with her every night.
JEREMY SCHAAP: Explain what you mean by slept on the phone?
MANTI TE'O: I'd be on the phone. And she had complications from the accident and, she said the only thing that could help her sleep was if I was on the phone. So I would be on the phone, and I'd have the phone on the whole night.
SP: Holy shit, what type of cell phone plan did Te'o have? That's like 8 hours a night, every night. I can't talk on the phone for 8 seconds without wanting to hang up. By the way, does this recalibrate the entire scale of "pussy whippedness"? Jesus, Te'o makes Doug Christie look like Doyle Hargraves from Sling Blade.
Te'o on him asking virtually the entire Samoan community if Kekua was real...and they all said YES!
MANTI TE'O: To be honest -- to be honest with you, I thought it was natural. It seemed natural. It seemed like, even though I just met her, she knew a lot about me already. No red flags popped up. Initially when I started to talk to her, obviously, I didn't see her yet, so I asked other people who knew of her and who had history with her, "Is this girl real?" And all of them said, "Yeah, she's real." So that kind of gave me confidence, that, yeah, I'm fine.
JEREMY SCHAAP: Who are these people that you reached out to?
MANTI TE'O: I reached out to my cousin and asked him.
JEREMY SCHAAP: Your cousin who?
MANTI TE'O: Shiloah, my first cousin. I asked him do you know this girl Lennay? And he said, "Yeah, I know this girl Lennay." And I said, "Is she real?" And he said, "Oh, yeah, she's real, bro, she's real."
JEREMY SCHAAP: He knew her?
MANTI TE'O: I guess he was in the same situation that I was in. He just didn't talk to her.
JEREMY SCHAAP: He was duped, as well?
MANTI TE'O: I talked to a former Oregon State quarterback who used to talk to her, as well. Who used to talk to her, as well.
JEREMY SCHAAP: Who was that.?
MANTI TE'O: Lyle Moevao. I asked him, and I still have the messages from him. "Hey, do you know who this Lennay girl is." He said "Yeah. I know her." He was like: "What's up?" I said, "We're just talking." He said, "I know her. She's real, bro. She's kind of weird. But she's real."
JEREMY SCHAAP: Did they indicate they'd ever met her?
MANTI TE'O: I didn't ask that.
JEREMY SCHAAP: Yeah, why would you?
SP: Maybe I'm superficial, but if I were Te'o I'd ask if they had met her (a) because I hadn't met her yet, and (b) I'd want to know what her body was like. I may be a pig, but I'm an informed pig.
Te'o on Skype-ing with Kekua
JEREMY SCHAAP: What about Skype-ing?
MANTI TE'O: I tried. I often asked to FaceTime, and she'd come on and, on my side, it would be a black screen. I'd be like, "I can't see you." And she would say, "Well, I can see me, and I can see you. What are you saying that you can't see me?"
JEREMY SCHAAP: She wouldn't say, "My camera was broken"? She was just like "Oh, you can't figure it out"?
MANTI TE'O: Yeah, it was just "I can see you, and I can see me in the corner. What do you mean you can't see me?"
SP: Ok, as if this "relationship" ever would have made it this far with a normal person, but I can assure you this is where I'd have cut things off. Skype and FaceTime malfunctions are a major red flag. I still think a nice heat check by the perpetrators would have been to hold the fake Lennay picture up to the camera and cut out the lips and have someone insert their lips in the hole and talk for her. If the rest of this story is any indicator, Te'o would have talked about how beautiful her lips were.
Te'o on Kekua wanting to deposit money into his bank account
MANTI TE'O: Early on, she said that she was going to send me money, actually. And she wanted to send it and she wanted to directly deposit it into my account. So she wants to know my checking account number, which I didn't give her.
JEREMY SCHAAP: Why not?
MANTI TE'O: I'm not giving my checking account number. I don't care who you are. I'm not giving my checking account number out to you. Then she went on and asked my best friend, Robby. Hey, Rob, I want to help you guys out with groceries or help you guys pay for the bills for the house. I've saved up some money, you know. Give me your checking account number, and I'll put it in there.
JEREMY SCHAAP: And he did what?
MANTI TE'O: He didn't. I told him, whatever you do, do not give out your checking account number.
JEREMY SCHAAP: That didn't raise any alarm bells for you?
MANTI TE'O: No, because when she did that, when she asked me, I actually went to the credit union and asked them, "Hey, if somebody wanted to put money into my account and they asked for my checking account number, could they pull money out?" And they told me no. So that red flag went immediately down.
SP: Let's pretend for a second that Kekua really was depositing money in Te'o's bank account. I'm guessing this would qualify as an NCAA violation. Put it this way, if Kim Dunbar (ND fans remember her) giving gifts to players qualified, so would this. This would have to be the first time that a school would get hit with sanctions for illegal benefits given to them by a person who doesn't exist. In a perverse, schadenfreude kind of way, I'm kind of bummed this didn't happen.
Te'o on scripture sessions with Lennay and his family
MANTI TE'O: Every day. She would send me a scripture, and we'd do the same thing. And I'd send her a scripture the next day. It was funny because a couple days later, my dad would say to me, what do you think of saying this with the old man, and share spiritual shots and I would say, "Hey, Dad, guess what? Lennay and I are doing something similar called SOAP." And he was like, "Can I join in?" And I said sure. So my dad joins in, and so so does my mom and my sister. So we have this big group going on. This big SOAP group, sending scriptures to each other ... observations. I still have them on my phone.
SP: So if you're keeping track, Kekua has now duped not just Te'o, but his entire family.
Te'o on Kekua having cancer
MANTI TE'O: Yep. She's still fighting leukemia. I have my own stuff for leukemia. ... You talk about red flags, it kind of just went off when I was with my best friend, Carlo. His mom is a cancer survivor. So I told his mom about my girlfriend. I said, "My girlfriend's going through cancer," and she said, "If she ever wants to talk, have her call me." I said, "She's on the phone right now." And she said, "Well, let me talk to her." So I gave her the phone. And the conversation was all cancer lingo. They were talking about this, and talking about.
SP: Add Carlo Calabrese's mom to the list of the duped, as well. (By the way, this is where Te'o being anywhere near the origin of this hoax went out the window for me. One thing to drag his family and a couple teammates into the mix by having them talk to "Lennay," but entirely another to drag someone named "Calabrese" into it.)
Te'o on lying to his dad about meeting Kekua
MANTI TE'O: Yeah, a few days later, I asked my dad if I could go sleep over at one of my friend's houses and that while I'm sleeping over, I'm going to go try and meet up with Lennay. I go to my friend's house, which was about 15, 20 minutes from where she was at. It was close, but I didn't have a car, and she did. But she said that her brothers were using it and she couldn't get there. So we ended up not meeting. So when I got home, Dad asked, "Hey, did you get to see her?" And, to avoid all the questions, I just said "Yeah, Dad, I saw her."
JEREMY SCHAAP: Do you think he would have been suspicious?
MANTI TE'O: I wasn't thinking as far as suspicion, I was thinking my dad would say, oh, operation shutdown.
JEREMY SCHAAP: What do you mean?
MANTI TE'O: He would just probably have said ... I don't support this relationship, and that's a risk that I wasn't willing to take at that time.
SP: If you're looking for the genesis of virtually all the inconsistencies in the extent Te'o's reported relationship and his actual relationship, in terms of whether or not he ever met Kekua, this is it. Basically, a small lie to his parents on par with "I'm sleeping over at Jimmy's" or "That's not my beer" turned into the smoking gun for every Te'o skeptic to say "See, Te'o is a LIAR! He's a BAD GUY!!" Seriously, who hasn't told a small, dead end lie (or several) to their parents just to get through a conversation or throw them off the scent? Honestly, at this point, when Te'o told his dad he had met her, he probably thought that eventually he would. He certainly wasn't thinking, "Man, this may come back to bite me if it turns out Lennay is just a hoax and she fakes her own death." Of course, once he told his parents he met her, then his parents intimated the same, and from there it mushroomed.
Te'o on saying he had met Kekua in follow up interviews
JEREMY SCHAAP: You did a lot of interviews. It was a big story during the season. One of the stories of the college football season. You described your relationship in a way that suggested you had met her. Explain.
MANTI TE'O: That goes back to what I did with my dad. I knew that -- I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn't meet, and that alone people find out that this girl who died I was so invested in, and I didn't meet her as well. So I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away. So people wouldn't think that I was some crazy dude.
SP: It turns out that by trying not to look crazy, Te'o wound up looking a billion times crazier. Irony, thy name is Manti.
Te'o on his decision to skip Kekua's "funeral"
MANTI TE'O: Because Lennay's funeral was the same day of the Michigan game. And because, before Lennay passed away, we had a conversation where she asked me if she passed away, if I could go to her funeral? I told her no, I'm not going to talk like that. I'm not going to talk like that. She said, "Tell me this, if anything happens, promise me that you'll send me white roses and say you'll play." She said, "All I want is white roses." And leading up to the funeral, her siblings kept telling me that their mom told them she didn't want me to come. They didn't want -- and I didn't want myself -- I didn't want that to be the first time that I saw her was lying in a coffin. That's why I didn't go.
SP: We all know now that Te'o opted not to go to Kekua's funeral. However, now we know that he would have done almost anything for this person. Is it out of the realm of possibility to think that if Kekua would have insisted Te'o go to her funeral that he would have skipped the Michigan game (a game in which he had two interceptions and was all over the field) and gone? Can you imagine if that's how we found out this whole thing was one big work? Also, in the published portions of the transcripts, Schaap never asks Te'o about Kekua's obituary (which obviously didn't exist). By the end of the interview, it's pretty clear that the woman acting the part of Kekua spoke to (and, therefore, existed in the minds of) Te'o, his parents, his roommates, his sister, and Carlo Calabrese's mom. None of these people bothered to look up an obituary online? Am I crazy to think somebody in Te'o's inner circle (especially TE'O!) would normally do this?
Te'o on finding out Kekua may still be alive
MANTI TE'O: Yeah, so I'm saying OK. So everything that I've known -- first of all, you're supposedly not dead. Second of all, the Lennay that I slept with on the phone is not the Lennay that I pictured in my head. Then she comes out later and says, well, no, no, no. That was my cousin Leah, who tried to stand up for me because she knew these drug people are still looking for me, are still on my case. So that was my cousin. So forget everything about this Leah girl. That's my cousin. I'm still the Lennay you know. So all these stories are coming at me. So I'm confused beyond anything.
SP: If you're confused, don't worry. At this point, I needed a map to follow the interview.
Te'o on telling Brian Kelly about the hoax
JEREMY SCHAAP: So you tell Kelly. First you tell your D-coordinator, then you tell Kelly. What was the conversation like [with] Brian Kelly?
MANTI TE'O: Coach Kelly just said she's dead. That's how we're going to go about it. She's dead. When you come in, we'll talk about it. That's all he said.
SP: This is my favorite part. Can't you just picture Brian Kelly calmly telling Te'o to chill out, and that his girlfriend is dead?
Te'o on Notre Dame's "investigation"
JEREMY SCHAAP: Who questioned you?
MANTI TE'O: They all did. They just asked simple questions. What did she say? What did she tell you? When did you find out?
JEREMY SCHAAP: When you say "all of them," you mean Swarbrick?
MANTI TE'O: Swarbrick, Kelly and Coach Diaco. The investigator, all she asked was just for a picture and any evidence that I had.
JEREMY SCHAAP: She never interviewed you?
MANTI TE'O: No, she never interviewed me again.
SP: With each day since Wednesday, a new wrinkle has emerged in the Te'o story. Sunday, the latest talking point was the shoddiness of Notre Dame's investigation into Te'o's claims. As you may recall, the university enlisted the help of private investigators to get to the bottom of the ruse a day after Te'o clued them in. You would think that a professional investigation would include thorough scouring of phone records, emails, tweets, and texts. You would think the investigation would include hours of conversation with Te'o himself on how everything went down. You would think.
Well, it included none of those things. Hey look, technically, Notre Dame didn't have to do anything in support of Te'o, and I'm sure a big goal of the investigation was to make sure the school wasn't exposed in any way that might result in the NCAA knocking on its door. But good Lord, you had to know that the degree to which the investigators dug in on the details of the case (especially something like phone records that, in theory, would have answers to many of our questions) would correlate directly to the public's level of skepticism on how culpable Te'o (and maybe even Notre Dame) were. Just sloppy, in my opinion.
Te'o on the South Bend Tribune story that indicated he "touched Kekua's hand"
JEREMY SCHAAP: It's not the same prior to the 16th. There are a couple of things, Manti, just, I want to ask you, because people said, all right, here are things that don't make sense. And I want to ask you myself. I want to hear it from your mouth. There is a story that's in the South Bend Tribune, which was one of the most comprehensive accounts of your relationship with Lennay Kekua. In it, it describes how you guys physically touched each other and how there was this in-person meeting. Where did that come from?
MANTI TE'O: I think it's all to make the story better.
JEREMY SCHAAP: You didn't tell Eric Hanson that you had touched her hand at some meeting?
MANTI TE'O: No. I'd never told anybody that I've touched her hand.
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SP: Ouch. Eric Hanson, that bus that just ran over you was driven by Manti Te'o.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.