Manti Te'o, Notre Dame, and the definition of insanity

Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Manti Te'o's girlfriend was never real, she never really died, and everything came crashing down Wednesday. Let's take a look at the most insane story we've seen in a long time.

You can read the particulars of the Manti Te'o story over at Deadspin, but chances are you already have. So, just to repeat all this out loud and make sure it's really happening: Notre Dame Heisman candidate Manti Te'o was dating a fake girlfriend, then mourning a fake dead girlfriend who fake died on the same day his grandmother actually did die, and while America got caught up congratulating him for his courage and turning him into a hero, nobody ever checked to see whether this fake dead girlfriend was real, leading to Wednesday, when everything came crashing down. Now Te'o and Notre Dame say he's a victim of a cruel hoax, and we're all re-watching old interviews where he says she was the most beautiful girl he ever met and gawking at tweets like this. So that's where we are.

[breathes into paper bag]

Fake dead girlfriend.

Fake dead girlfriend!

It's just out of control.

And God it's perfect that everything's happening at Notre Dame. College sports generally traffics in mythmaking as a rule, glorifying the lie that the amateur sports stand for something more profound than just wins and losses in a billion dollar business that pays the athletes nothing. College sports are where loyalty and tradition reign supreme and young men inspire us and give us memories that last a lifetime. Some of this is true, but come on. There's nothing more cynical than using nostalgia to sell a lie, and college sports does this as a reflex. But NOBODY does it bigger and better than Notre Dame, the school that's used virtue and chastity and inspirational parables to distinguish itself since the beginning of time.

The people that invented the Knute Rockne Gipper speech and sold the world on a Rudy movie full of lies gave us the story of a linebacker courageously mourning a dead girlfriend he never met? Of course they did! That's what makes them Notre Dame.

Another thing that makes them Notre Dame: Superhuman capacity for denial, and a tenuous relationship to honesty. We don't have to go too far down the rabbit hole for examples here. Last year In 2010 there was Declan Sullivan, a student volunteer who fell to his death when his football coach demanded allowed him to ignore the dangerous weather conditions and tape football practice from a sky high tower. (Edit: Read more here. The school did admit wrongdoing but took no action against the coach, and the details of that day are still unclear.) Two years later In 2010, there was also the story of Lizzy Seeberg, a girl who accused a Notre Dame player of sexual assault and was allegedly shamed for it by her peers while authorities took no action. Read about it in all its miserable detail here. Seeberg committed suicide 10 days later, and the accused player never missed a game. There was another rape accusation that apparently went unreported as a result. Again, here: Notre Dame admits no wrongdoing, and remains vague on the particulars.

So, take a school that needs inspirational myths to validate its relevance and refuses to see evil when and where it's not convenient and -- again -- Notre Dame is perfect for this story. No school on earth has a bigger gulf between its shimmering facade and the complicated reality inside, and it exploits the disconnect relentlessly. Of course the star player of Notre Dame's dream season had a fake dead girlfriend that became national news and inspired millions.

And now that it's all on the table, we're supposed to trust Notre Dame? The school that's twisted the truth over and over again is supposed to be to different this time?

Athletic director Jack Swarbrick called a press conference Wednesday night where he told the world that Manti Te'o was the victim of a cruel hoax. It was an Internet relationship, according to Notre Dame, and the school knew nothing. Te'o, himself, didn't find out he was duped until Dec. 6.

In other words, everyone in South Bend is more or less blameless for anything that happened this year. If Te'o's guilty of anything, it's being "the single most trusting human being I've ever met," according to Swarbrick. "That's an incredible tragedy," he said.

It's an incredibly convenient way to interpret what we know. For instance, Sports Illustrated and others reported that his fake girlfriend was in a car crash and later diagnosed with Leukemia. For one thing, the car crash supposedly "happened" in June, when Notre Dame's not in session. Te'o never visited her on either occasion, and nobody batted an eye? He never TRIED to visit her, failed, and got suspicious?

Manti Te'o said pretty clearly that he met his girlfriend. "She was the most beautiful person I ever met," he told ESPN this fall. Now Swarbrick claims they "met" online. But his father said they met in person, too--that the two of them spent time together in Hawaii. Even if Te'o wasn't behind the original lie -- inventing Lennay Kekua -- there have been plenty of subsequent lies that came directly from Te'o and his family that made the lie more believable.

Objectively: This makes him complicit, doesn't it?

Once he started inventing his own lies to explain the story to millions, that arguably makes him worse than whatever bored sociopath created the fake girlfriend in the first place.

The people who would accept Notre Dame's sanitized version and pity Te'o are the same type of people who were too squeamish to follow up on the suspicions surrounding his fake dead girlfriend, because nobody wants to believe something like that. Now, nobody wants to believe Te'o deliberately embraced all these lies and ran with them, because this story is awful enough on its own. But let's be honest about all this.

Te'o spent a year dedicating his life's work to a fake girl that he lied about meeting, never visited in the hospital, never even laid eyes on, and according to Notre Dame, never once questioned. Maybe this makes him a victim of historic naivete, or maybe believing that is its own sort of world record in self-delusion.

I'm not trying to be the heartless asshole who's rooting for Te'o to be exposed as a sociopath who concocted all of this for Heisman hype, but it's possible for him to be guilty of consciously feeding the lies without calling him a scheming sociopath. He was a 22-year-old college kid, and things got out of control.

Anyway, we have no idea, and we'll definitely learn more in the coming days and weeks. But watching Notre Dame spin this, and hearing people embrace Swarbrick's version of the story, it goes a long way toward explaining how this story happened in the first place. People don't want to believe the worst, or be heartless assholes, and that makes us all easy marks, over and over again.

That's all we can say for now.

One more point, though: The near-universal reaction to this magically insane story is to say that today's world is a full of false idols, and stories like this are a good example of why we should all be cynical. But that's too easy, and not the point here. With sports or anything else, there's room between "heartless asshole" and "hopeless believer." Yeah, it's stupid to take every deifying Sports Illustrated cover story as gospel, but it's also miserable to look for the lie and assume the worst with any inspirational story. We don't have to deal in extremes, though. The cynics are usually right, sure, but the believers are happier, and the trick is landing somewhere in the middle. You can roll your eyes at the sensational bullshit and still love someone like Kevin Durant. Just like you can be skeptical of Notre Dame's explanation without swearing Manti Te'o's a sociopath who did it all for the Heisman. People aren't as great or awful as they sometimes seem, they are generally just a lot more complicated than we realize. If we can see that in the Te'o story, then maybe the craziest sports story in my lifetime leaves us walking away with something like sanity.

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