The Media Had a Role in the Manti Te'o Imaginary Girlfriend Hoax

The Notre Dame linebacker was a part of an elaborate hoax about the death of his fake girlfriend.

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In this Oct. 27, 2012, file photo, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o stands on the sidelines duringf an NCAA college football game against Oklahoma in Norman, Okla. Te'o is a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.

Earlier this month, it appeared that the title of creepiest storyline about a college football player's girlfriend would go to that involving Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, his girlfriend Katherine Webb, and ESPN announcer Brent Musburger, who seems to be single-handedly trying to resurrect the term "dirty old man." As the camera zeroed in on the very lovely (and 2012 Miss Alabama) Webb in the stands at a game, the 73-year-old Musburger gushed about her looks, at length, and said, "Wow, I'm telling you quarterbacks: You get all the good-looking women.'"

Setting aside the sheer offensiveness of the remark—reducing Webb to a party favor for star college athletes—Musburger amped up the creepy factor, verbally leering at a woman young enough to be his granddaughter. ESPN apologized (sort of) for crossing the line, but said it was merely following an "interesting storyline" (what—that college students have boyfriends and girlfriends? Stop the presses!).

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But that cringe-inducing episode seems quaint compared to the tale of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o. Te'o's been having a great season, despite what he had said repeatedly was the mental anguish of losing both his grandmother and his girlfriend—"the love of my life," as he called her—within hours of each other in September.

Except that it turned out that the girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never existed, according to reporting by the website Deadspin. All the talk about Kekua—who supposedly had died of leukemia after suffering a terrible car crash to boot—was a lit. Notre Dame said Te'o had been the victim of an "elaborate hoax," and Te'o himself said he had been embarrassed by the "sick joke."

[2012: The Year in Cartoons.]

It is sick and awful, and whoever is responsible for the online birth and death of the fictitious character should be ashamed, at the least. But it begs the question—how is it possible a grown person didn't know his own girlfriend didn't exist?

Te'o, apparently, never met Kekua (which would explain why he didn't attend her fake funeral—saying at the time Lennay would want him to play ball instead of mourn). They developed what Te'o said was an intense online and phone relationship. A local newspaper report telling a made-for-Lifetime-TV tale about how the two met at a football game and continued a storybook romance—in person, not just in cyberspace—turned out to be false, although the paper said it was given the information by Te'o's family. Te'o himself acknowledged recently he had never met "the love of his life," but said he had grown to care deeply for her through their electronic communication.

[See Photos: The 2013 NFL Playoffs.]

The hoax appears to be the worst of it, but it's really just a symptom of much bigger problems. First, let's remember that the Internet and social media are great ways to track people down and keep in touch with far-flung associates, but they are not substitutes for real relationships. Intimate relationships in particular require actual in-person contact. All those "friends" you have on Facebook? They're not really your friends—or they're not if you don't otherwise see them or talk to them. They're just people who have enough interest in you—be it voyeuristic, jealous, or merely curious in nature—to want to know whether you "like" someone else's comments about someone you don't even know.

And why does anyone need a backstory to make sports compelling? Sure, the personal histories of athletes can add to the drama. Who among us was not moved by seeing a man with prosthetics from the knees down competing in an Olympic race? But the girlfriend-behind-the-man story is more than a bit dated. If Te'o was indeed involved in the hoax, he should apologize. But it wouldn't have happened if the media wasn't anachronistically pushing an ideal of the courageous male athlete and his adoring, supportive woman. I love football. But really, sportscasters, I just want to watch the game on the field.       

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