The Manti Te'o Interview Just Leads to More Questions

The Atlantic Wire

Well that was strange, wasn't it? Controversy-embroiled Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o went on Katie Couric's talk show Katie today (or at least the interview aired today) to discuss this crazy situation with his non-existent dead girlfriend. Was he hoaxed? Was he in on it? Couric attempted to get to the bottom of things. Well, sorta. She dug a little, but not all the way. She set him up to say a lot of crazy things, but then didn't do much followthrough. So we're still left wondering: Just what the hell happened here?

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The story is so confusing on so many fronts. First: Why does a revered college football player at a football-mad school have to make up stories about meeting the online girlfriend he, in fact, has never met? Why the online girlfriend at all? I know that he's a Mormon and so wasn't likely to be a BMOC (to use Katie's acronym), scoring with chicks left and right. But there was no one on campus to date? Was it a dearth of Mormons? Not enough girls from a similar ethnic background? If we can't come up with credible answers to those questions, then the bigger one sneaks in: Does he like girls at all? Might this whole faraway girlfriend business — you wouldn't know her, she lives in California — been a convenient way to create a virtual beard? Couric asked him if he was gay point blank, and Te'o answered with a vehement, "Farrrrr from it," sending the audience into titters. It was the most unpleasant portion of an unpleasant interview.

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Beyond those initial questions — why get involved in this strange, disembodied relationship to begin with? — we get into issues of the mechanics of the hoax and Te'o's response to it. Was that really the admitted hoaxer Ronaiah Tuiasosopo's voice in those messages from "Lennay"? How'd he get so good at doing that voice? How long could he sustain it for? Apparently a pretty long time, as "Lennay" and Te'o spoke on the phone fairly frequently, from the sound of it. I mean, if we believe Te'o. Which I'm not sure we do. Or least I don't. Because he did lie, several times. He lied about how they met and he lied after he found out that she was "alive" after supposedly dying of cancer. Sure it's possible that he was being a dumb, embarrassed kid, one caught up in a huge swirl of pressure and scrutiny and expectation. But I can't shake the feeling that there was another motive here. I think he doth protest a bit much on the gay issue, to be frank. I don't think that conversation is really over.

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That brings us to the question of whether we should be having the conversation at all! Sure it's a compelling human interest story, but did we really need the kid's parents weeping on television? Does Manti Te'o deserve the same Courician light grilling that Sarah Palin did? I get that Couric is a talk show host now, perky white Oprah or whatever, and not a newswoman, but still. The intense scrutiny does feel a little odd or imbalanced, especially when Te'o's father sits on stage crying and reminding us that his son is "just a 21-year-old kid." Is it prurient and prying of us to have doubts about his sexuality or his dating life? He did use "Lennay" and her "death" as a stepping stone to national fame, but that was laid out for him by other people. Maybe he doesn't deserve all this.

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But then, oh man, I go back to what must be lies. This thing about him not visiting "Lennay" in the hospital when she was supposedly in a coma. He had some balderdash escuse about not wanting to miss his flight home to see his parents, but come on. That's nonsense. He must have known something was up at that point, right? Though, if he was clued in so early, why on Earth make the voicemails? Just in case he got caught at some unknown date in the future? That doesn't really add up. We're not talking about Danny Ocean here, we're talking about a post-adolescent linebacker. So, OK, he wasn't in on it. Why not try to see her? Are his parents that overbearing? Wouldn't they have understood, accepted that he wanted to briefly see his coma-stricken girlfriend in the hospital, someone he supposedly loved? Again we arrive at the feeling, or at least I do, that Te'o wasn't actually all that invested in this fiction. That he was using "Lennay" as a stand-in for, well, something else. How else to explain his mind-boggling gullibility — her Skype or FaceTime or whatever just happened to be broken when they tried to talk? I have to assume that he chose to go along with the obvious lies because this situation suited his ulterior motives. Maybe he was conning "Lennay."

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Still, it's a lot of trouble to go through! People in corners will do desperate things, sure, and lies have a way of snowballing, but I just don't understand the motivation for crafting this whole thing in the first place. On either side. Tuiasosopo is maybe mentally imbalanced, but I don't think Te'o is. So what is he? Gay? Dumb? Both? Hard to say, and hard to say whether Couric's interview really satisfied anything. Really it just confirmed the strangeness of the story. Which, I suspect, will end in one of two ways. Either there will be some big, teary everything-on-the-table press conference in a month or two, or the story will just disappear without anything ever resolved. I don't see much middle ground here. Though, of course, it's hard to see anything in all this haze.