Time to put Te'o embarrassment to rest

Manti Te'o Katie Couric

Manti Te'o talks to Katie Couric. (Reuters photo via Disney-ABC / January 24, 2013)

Journalistic duty requiring Katie Couric to ask Manti Te'o about his sexuality during a nationally televised interview made the moment no less absurd.

Here was a respected former network news anchor, a woman who had interviewed heroes and presidents, serving the most prurient interests of her audience by taking us into the bedroom of a college football player.

"Are you gay?'' Couric probed in the interview that aired Thursday, looking for a possible reason to explain why the former Notre Dame linebacker might continue a longtime, long-distance virtual relationship.

"No, far from it … far from it,'' Te'o said, followed by nervous laughter.

Te'o answered so emphatically that some wondered why that particular question appeared to bother him more than others and whether Te'o's strong response reflected the rampant homophobia of his sport. Alas, this is where the Te'o saga stands after nine bizarre days of news that transcended sports enough to make the nation stare.

America can look away now.

The next time we need to see Te'o is in gray shorts and a T-shirt next month at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Let the debate shift soon from what role Te'o played in a sad, sick stunt that also fooled his parents to the one he will play on an NFL team like the Bears, who still should consider drafting him. Give the butt of so many over-told Lennay Kekua jokes and snarky tweets ample time and space to get serious about playing pro football.

Remember, that's all Te'o is: a football player. He isn't a coach, public official, clergyman or any other kind of professional whose behavior merits the kind of national scrutiny an amateur student-athlete's has undergone. The only person who died in this story was fictitious. Nobody committed a crime, which wouldn't generate as much interest among NFL teams. Te'o committed sins of omission and those seem to be the hardest for the public to forgive.

Yes, Te'o should have called a news conference the day Deadspin broke the story, as Notre Dame did — or even in December — to address questions in an open forum instead of scheduling two hand-picked interviews that only increased skepticism. Indeed, Te'o had flimsy excuses for never meeting Kekua in person, not even after a phony car accident or leukemia diagnosis could get him there. He should have been transparent sooner or, as Couric suggested, gone to Notre Dame officials at the first hint of a hoax.

He never should have fibbed to his father, Brian, about meeting Kekua in person in Hawaii; the white lie that eventually made Te'o's intentions seem dark and sinister to some. He certainly never should have let the myth perpetuate publicly in interviews after getting a call Dec. 6 from the person he thought had died three months earlier. He never should have made several mistakes he acknowledged to Couric.

"People feeling they're misled, for that I'm sorry,'' Te'o said. "I wasn't as forthcoming as I should have been for fear of embarrassment.''

Based on the Couric conversation, I find it more plausible that Te'o feared being exposed as "a weirdo'' for falling in love with a girl he met online than that he helped orchestrate a cruel plot to drive a Heisman Trophy campaign. I heard an incredibly naive and perhaps sheltered 21-year-old young man whose actions suggested dysfunction more than deception. I saw a scared kid who has been humiliated.

"The feelings, the pain, the sorrow … that was something I can't fake,'' Te'o told Couric.

The lawyer for alleged hoax mastermind Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, according to the New York Daily News, claimed his client used a falsetto voice to impersonate Kekua. Tuiasosopo, who his lawyer says is undergoing mental-health treatment, confessed to duping Te'o in a Twitter message Couric showed. Records ESPN obtained show Te'o spent more than 500 hours in 1,000 calls talking on the phone to who he thought was the girl he loved.

Nothing during a senior season as the country's most popular college football player could have prepared Te'o for how to handle exposure like this. Nothing about past Notre Dame myths from The Gipper to Grantland Rice, from Rockne to Rudy, bears any connection to a tale about a gullible, confused son afraid most of letting mom and dad down.

"The greatest joy in any child's life is to make your parents proud,'' Te'o said. "The greatest pain is to know they're experiencing pain because of you.''

Genuine tears welled in Te'o's eyes. Actual pain appeared to cover his face.

Clearly, it would have been easier for Te'o to face the scorn of being Tuiasosopo's partner than the shame of being his patsy. But now we suspect it would have been even harder to believe.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

 
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Google Plus
  • RSS Feeds
  • Mobile Alerts and Apps