Manti Te’o is gullible, but he’s not a monster

January 19th, 2013 | Written by Rob Staton

A villain? Or just a gullible young man, in over his head?

I wanted to write an article about this subject, but felt it was best to sit on it for a few days. If there’s anything this story should tell the world of journalism, it’s to do some research. There is too much unnecessary pressure on being ‘first’. Frankly, it’s been embarrassing at times watching Adam Schefter, Chris Mortensen, Ian Rapoport and Jason La Canfora trying to beat each other to the punch over every pathetic little scrap of news regarding the NFL’s coaching carousel. Is that journalism? Is it just about being able to Tweet something 32 seconds before someone else? Being able to react to a group text or email before a rival? Surely it should be about being accurate, thorough and detailed?

This is at the heart of the Manti Te’o story. Why did it take weeks to uncover the truth? Why were media conglomerates and journalists happy to tell a story of such magnitude without ever bothering to consider the full facts? Why did the truth get pushed to one side, a forgotten aspect of a story that seemed too good to be true for so many, mainly because it was.

On Twitter as the news of a hoax broke, you had the initial gasps of disbelief then people trying to play ‘detective’. Oh right! Now’s the time to do some digging! Suddenly people were explaining how Te’o ‘had to be in on it all along’.

“There was this interview three weeks ago where he said blah blah blah, so he must be in on it.”

People were hyping up his involvement, questioning his sexuality, questioning his sanity. Had the Deadspin revelation not taught anyone anything?

I am not a Notre Dame fan. I have no reason to stick up for Manti Te’o. But the way people rushed to condemn this man was equally as pathetic as the way people rushed to build him up. This was modern media at its worst. Plucking a story that sold, feeding off it for weeks, then acting shocked when it proved to be a big steaming pile of bull. Send in the lynch mob.

Here’s what I think — and I’ve actually waited to hear his side of the story, unlike some. I think Manti Te’o is very gullible. I think he can be taken advantage of. I think he truly believed there was a women out there named Lennay Kekua and that he was having some form of ‘relationship’ with her. I think he believed this girl was involved in a car crash and was then diagnosed with leukemia. I think he believed she’d died. I think he shared with his family, friends and team mates information about this ‘relationship’ — from its early stages to apparent tragic conclusion. When the media found out about this story, he talked to them about it too.

And when he found out it was a cruel practical joke, he lied to cover up the fact he’d been taken for a complete fool.

So why did he lie? Most people wouldn’t ever consider developing a relationship with a stranger on Twitter. Heck — if you meet your partner on the internet, there’s a certain stigma attached to that. In most cases that’s completely unfair. Society loves to judge people. You’re supposed to meet your partner at University, or in a bar, or while out running in Central Park. Not on the internet. In hindsight he should’ve just come forward, told the truth and taken his role as the victim. Seemingly through sheer embarrassment, he took the wrong path. One of further deceit.

It started to spiral out of control. He was in over his head. And the inevitable conclusion is what we’ve seen over the last few days. A very public, even more embarrassing spectacle. Te’o made himself look very silly.

His judgement was incredibly weak. But do we honestly believe he was in cahoots with the hoaxers all along? I can’t buy that.

People have questioned why he didn’t rush to the bed side of the supposed ‘love of his life’ when she was allegedly diagnosed with leukemia. It’s a fair question to ask. But then this is a guy who had fallen in love with a woman he’d never met. They’d never had face to face interaction. To him, spending all night with a phone pressed to his ear while ‘Lennay’ slept on the other end was probably his version of rushing to her bed side. In this bizarre relationship that he created — this was probably par for the course.

Te’o will never shake this off. He’s always going to be that gullible, foolish, inexperienced kid who made a national laughing stock of himself in his final year of college. He let himself be deceived and then he made a complete mess of trying to cover it up. But did he have any part to play in this? Did he somehow devise this whole story to try and promote himself and help Notre Dame? That just seems ridiculous. Too ridiculous even for this crazy story.

I think we are right to question how Te’o let this happen, but I don’t think we’re right to try and invent conspiracy theories on his involvement without doing the proper research. There’s a world of difference between being gullible and embarrassed and conniving and scandalous.

The other big question everyone is asking is how will it impact his draft stock? There are several things to consider here.

Is the stigma of this story too damaging that a team won’t want to deal with the hassle of this coming up again in the future? Will a lot of GM’s simply say, “let somebody else deal with this situation”?

Having met with Te’o, can teams reassure themselves that he’s thick skinned enough to deal with the forthcoming onslaught? Does he have the strength of character to deal with not just opposition players bringing it up every week, but maybe even his own team mates?

What does the incident say about his character and personality? Is he easily influenced? Is he immature? Is he constantly making bad judgements? Will this lead to problems down the line? Is he prone to moments where you just cannot fathom what he was thinking?

Part of his charm at Notre Dame was the leadership aspect he brought to the team. Is he capable of being the same leader for a NFL team given the worldwide publicity this story has received?

And most importantly, will this affect his play on the field?

Nearly every team will be monitoring his off-season closely. He’s going to be working out with other college players and presumably he’s going to be at the combine. Te’o made a big mistake in my view deciding not to attend the Senior Bowl. What a fantastic opportunity to show he was getting on with the job. There’s no point hiding. He’s better off going to Mobile, performing well and showing teams his head is back in the game. This could be a crucial error and I suspect it won’t be well received.

He does still have that opportunity to show he’s moving on with his life and not letting it impact his play. He’ll face some tough interviews and he better be ready. He needs to prove to GM’s and coaches that he’ll win the respect of his team mates by out working and out performing everyone in the pre-season. If he does that, he’ll suddenly find he has twenty or thirty players on game day willing to get his back when the opposition starts chirping.

Te’o has to be sincere and convincing. That’s the only way he’s going to repair his stock. Missing the Senior Bowl isn’t a good start. If he goes into the combine a quivering wreck, then it’s time to wonder just how low he could fall in the draft.

He could still be a first round pick. It only takes one team to believe he can get over this. Playing middle linebacker — a none premium position — doesn’t help the cause. But there’s enough teams out there who could use the Manti Te’o we saw on the field for a 12-1 Notre Dame. If he fails to convince teams he can get over this then he’s going to be avoided like the plague. Who knows where he’d fall?

Camera’s will be following his every move in the build up to the draft. If I was advising his family, I’d tell them to embrace that. Don’t reject any interviews. Answer every question. Appear to be beyond this. Try to laugh it off when you can. I have a real fear they’re going to be uptight about this subject and that will not help.

The Te’o's need to show the NFL they can move on. The best way to combat embarrassment is to be self-depreciating and take it on the chin. If he has any ambition of being a first or second round pick, he needs to win the media battle and ace his interviews. It’s going to be a tough battle ahead. But let’s not try too hard to turn a gullible young man into a villain.

Manti Te’o conducted an interview with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap in response to this story. For more details, click here.

32 Responses to “Manti Te’o is gullible, but he’s not a monster”

  1. Barry says:

    Edited for legal purposes

    • Rob Staton says:

      Barry — I’m going to have to remove your message. We have to be VERY careful not to make allegations we can’t back up. I am not in a position to take on a law suit with the University of Notre Dame.

      • Barry says:

        Yes sorry that one got away from me a bit didnt it. I’d like to point out that I enjoy the tradition of ND football, and love Rudy. ;)

  2. Dobbs says:

    Sorry, but after lying so much, I’m not giving the benefit of the doubt.

    If I have an internet girlfriend for 3 years, I’m going to want more than a single picture.

    I somehow doubt he spent hours on the phone with any female, why would anyone waste their time doing that?

    I could go on picking things apart, but why bother? He lied and it’s clear to me he was in on the hoax. Denying that just makes him look worse.

    • Rob Staton says:

      How is it clear to you he was ‘in’ on the hoax? I mean that’s just silly, isn’t it? I have no issues with people pointing out that he’s done a heck of a lot of lying — and it’s not a good look. It will hurt him. But it’s also perfectly understandable that this paper trail of lies was almost certainly to save face for a truly horrendously embarrassing situation. If we’re going to assume anything, let’s assume that. It makes a damn site more sense than a guy faking a dead girlfriend to… errr… beat Purdue?

    • Chris says:

      The easiest explanation is the one that is now being given. People are duped by sick individuals over the internet or email all the time. Anonymity causes people to act far more evil than they might otherwise. If he hadn’t spread lies about meeting her or embellished their relationship to others (although it makes sense that one might do this in his position), this would be a 1 day story.

    • Belgaron says:

      You haven’t read the interview, she was an online acquaintance several years earlier, they were only closer in a “relationship” for several months before she went into a “coma”, not 3 years. He thought he’d seen pictures of her and he thought he had proof she was real from several third parties. Their contact was mostly via phone after some initial Facebook contacts. While this is definitely weird and gullible, it is plausible.

      My first thought about why a female would do that is because she liked him and wanted a relationship with him but knew if he actually saw her he wouldn’t be interested. But until we get a full account from Ronniah or the girl accomplice, who knows. There was never any requests for money from the girl, but he was still a student. Perhaps the whole thing was done with hopes of getting paid after he signed his NFL deal.

  3. Dobbs says:

    I don’t care to speculate on why kids care to play a prank and what their end goal is, but I refuse to believe this guy called someone his girlfriend that he’d never met in person, never seen on webcam, only seen a limited amount of pictures of and that some girl may or may not have spoken many hours on the phone or skype with him.

    We live in a digital age and somehow we’re to believe he went months or even years without ever seeing her. Sorry, but why believe a word that’s come out of his mouth to cover this whole thing up?

    • Rob Staton says:

      I don’t see why you find it hard to believe that someone could fall in love and believe he was the boyfriend of someone he was basically having a relationship with online and via phone calls. Come on, Dobbs. I wouldn’t get into a situation like that. You wouldn’t get into a situation like that. But can you honestly tell me you can’t contemplate a situation where somebody would fall head over heels with a voice… a picture… a phone call?

      I find that a lot more believable than Manti Te’o creating a fake dead girlfriend to achieve a glorious unbeaten season.

      • Dobbs says:

        Not for as long as he did, no.

        For someone that has lied to everybody he knows as much as he did, I find it difficult to believe that people still believe a word he says.

        • Belgaron says:

          I read all these posts and it is clear you haven’t read the details, their “relationship” was only several months, not years, they were only infrequent friends before that. So when you say “Not for as long…”, several months is not that long. Their is definitely some odd things to his decisions but people do odd things.

  4. Sam Jaffe says:

    I agree with everything you say Rob. If he wasn’t in on the hoax, then he’s guilty of being extremely gullible. If he was, then he’s guilty of…lying. Considering how many draft prospects have lied about their personal lives, drug use, criminal record, etc., that seems like a pretty minor crime.

    Here’s my theory of why the press has handled this story so irresponsibly: it’s so weird to them. Most football reporters are in their forties or older and can’t comprehend someone having an “online relationship”. Thus they’re grasping at straws as to why he would have done such a thing. The problem is that too many of them are publishing their grasps–with innuendo about his sexuality to crazy theories that he might have done this to ensure winning the Heisman.

    If I were an NFL player or coach I would much rather have Teo on my team than someone who beat up his real-life girlfriend or cheated on a test or can’t kick a drug habit. As bizarre as this story is, the only thing it proves is that Teo is guilty of human frailty.

    As far as draft impact, I think it won’t have any. Teo was being touted as a top 15 pick, even though everyone who has a modicum of knowledge about the draft process knows that he would have been lucky to have been drafted in the first round (unless he blows the combine away–which now that I’ve seen him play against Alabama’s pro-worthy players I now know he won’t). As you mentioned, MLB’s rarely get drafted in the first round, unless they have superhuman athleticism. As we’ve seen from this scandal, Teo is only human. Unfortunately, so is his athleticism. I say he goes somewhere between picks 30 and 50, which is where he would have gone all along.

  5. Snoop Dogg says:

    Three things:

    1) I honestly feel sorry for Manti Teo. This will be the only thing people talk about until he is drafted.

    2) I think this case relates a lot to Vontaze Burfict or Janoris Jenkins. This will make Teo a steal for whoever drafts him!

    3) My concern about Teo doesn’t relate to his media conflict, but rather to how he has the best defensive line in football besides South Carolina. He has two defensive tackles who are expected to be super high picks. One of them had 12 sacks! The other is a 340 lbs. runstuffing beast! I worry that he is a worse football player than advertised. Is this a legit concern that you have as a talent evaluator?

    • Belgaron says:

      Unfortunately, it will go well beyond the draft but he will definitely have cause for a chip on his shoulder. Maybe if he’s the next Ray Lewis, people might forget, otherwise he’ll always be that guy who got duped.

  6. Darnell says:

    That national championship game performance will have a bigger inpact on his draft stock than this incident, he looked out of place against NFL caliber talent.

    As far as this incident, I don’t think it in itself will affect his draft position that much. Guys still get drafted high after committing violent acts against actual real live women.

    Gimme Manti over Ahmad Brooks, Mark Chmura, Jovan Belcher every time. I have time for immature and gullible but not so much for evil.

  7. JC says:

    Art Theil, whom I appreciate as a wordsmith but loathe for his sports judgment, made an interesting point on the radio Friday. He told a story about soldier he knew that carried on a “serious” relationship with a woman he’d never me while deployed in Afghanistan. This soldier desperately wanted the personal warmth from someone at home without the risks and pitfalls his fellows had with wives and girlfriends while they were away for a year or more. Going further he points out that Teo, a native Islander and devoute Morman playing at the Catholic Midwest school might have had difficulty adjusting. Heap on top being the star football player, the risk of temptation might have lead him to seek non physical affection over the internet.

    I’ll hazard a guess that none of us will ever have those ingredients stewing in our lives, so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Ultimately no one was hurt, in body or treasure. I’ve already moved on and wish him the best.

    • Rob Staton says:

      Brilliantly put, JC.

    • Belgaron says:

      There is no doubt that all of those things played into this, he’s also clearly a very young guy.

    • Barry says:

      I don’t believe that the example Art Theil gave was in any way relative to the current situation or former situation. Teo’s situation was made very public. The very essence of a personal relationship carries its meaning in the term we refer to it in. The point that Teo is a devout Mormon playing at a very prestigious Catholic school removes the Mormon interest, though I may have missed the story were he was trying to convert some of his teammates.

      The story was have before us isn’t about anyone being hurt per say. It’s a social issue about what we accept as a society for people as young as a collage student using a public stage to further his career and public image based on what has been now found to be not true. If you do not believe he was the victim, was it those who gave well wishes and prayers and votes to a young man you took a very personal issues public for what reason we can only apparently discuss because we chose to.

      Maybe the questions we should be asking is why was a situation like this made so public. It seems when there is something to be gained something personal is sacrificed without a second thought.

      In the end I wish this whole event wasn’t an actuality because to me it takes some of the shine off a good prospect and the Draft….And I imagine that’s a safe bet.

  8. Chris says:

    I feel bad for the kid. Regardless of whether he was a victim or perpetrator, the only thing we know is he clearly got in over his head. I know I did some stupid things when I was his age and even older. I’d hate for them to define me for the rest of my life.

    I hope he’s able to put it behind him and thrive in the NFL.

  9. stuart says:

    What is really sad is the Hawks are not playing tomorrow in the NFC Championship and we are down to talking about a college kid who did something really embarrising. I wont be watching football this weekend because that loss to Atlanta is still too painful.

  10. Christon says:

    Rob, you always have great a perspective and that’s why your one of the best websites out there for forward thinking Seahawks fans. I really respect and appreciate your opinion and I’m glad you didn’t react too soon to this story.

    I think the media believed that Te’o lied to them when they heard that his girlfriend was a “hoax” and they were out to get revenge. Before all the facts came out, they made him seem like the least credible person and the biggest villain on the planet (at least worse than Lance Armstrong). Yes, he did make it worse by lying to save face after he realized he had been duped. He should just have come clean as soon as he found out, and laughed at himself about it. Even then though, who’s to say that the media wouldn’t have accused him of being in on it then to gain Heisman votes?

    Anyways, I hope Te’o can recover from this and have a solid career in the NFL. He seems like a good, gullible, sheltered Mormon kid. And if there is one positive for Te’o – at least his coaches know he’ll have not trouble buying into their system.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see the Seahawks taking advantage of his potential fall – even if he was available in round two because they have greater needs (pass rusher & playmaker) elsewhere.

  11. Turp says:

    Poor Te’o got catfished. I don’t see him being on the Hawks radar…but you never know.

  12. A. Simmons says:

    I didn’t read the story. Don’t care. This stuff happens all the time on the Internet. I guess this is a big deal because Manti is a somewhat public figure. In any other circumstances you laugh about it and shrug.

  13. Frank says:

    It’s just so odd for a team leader to get tied into something like this. I would expect if he caught on mid season, he would had had a hard time breaking the story in the middle of going undefeated. Manti is a young Mormon kid who is probable still pretty nieve. I am sure he wouldn’t want to disapoint teamates and familly. I want to know how much all these feel good story’s raised his stock this year. I don’t think he will fall at all on draft day, he would have to bomb the interviews and workouts to make the Hawks. How would he be used? Wagner become the will?

  14. kevin mullen says:

    If he’s sitting there in the 4th, take him. He’s still a football player regardless if position is already filled. He’s got good sideline to sideline speed. Not sure on his pass coverage or blitzes but nonetheless he’s got incredible value if he does make a fall farther than 2nd round. Thinking he could have a “Vontae Burfict” type season.

    • Barry says:

      He has good instincts, but looks to be playing over weight to me. Going to make sudden moves he look way to slow. I’m interested in seeing if he gets in better shape for the private or combine workouts.

      • kevin mullen says:

        Either way, regardless of the outcome of this whole “more than it really is” type of story, he led a top rank defense in college up until that final game. He couldn’t shed blocks worth a damn but Alabama has lineman that are NFL ready so it’s really hard to pit the whole blame on him for that game.

        Who cares if he made up a girlfriend story to everyone, I make one up to my mother every time I visit her if I’m not in a relationship just so she stopped harrassing me on “when you gonna settle down and have kids…” type questions.

  15. Colin says:

    Weird. The only way to put this story.

    The media made an enormous story out of how he was playing inspired football, how he did it for this girl, how sad it was, blah blah blah.

    The media made him out to be this larger than life figure. When you said Notre Dame, Manti Te’o was the first guy you thought of.

    It’s sad because they built him up, and now they are tearing him down. I’m not sold he’s a victim- a stud MLB for a premier college football team and about to have a great career in a playing and financial sense- nope I don’t know what’s going on, I’m innocent and naieve- dude, what are you thinking about?

  16. Jeff says:

    I’m not sure rather he was in on it or just gullible. And frankly not sure which is worse. Either way if I were an NFL GM this would be a significant red flag for me. Think of the potential locker room talk that could come from this. I would not be opposed to adding this player to my roster but I think it would need to be a day 3 pick and I’d have to be sure that when he got to town he could win over the locker room. This might be possible but like it or not this story is a running gag and that gag has certainly made its way into NFL locker rooms.

  17. adog says:

    Rob, i could be off on this, but didn’t you mention in a prior post about LB prospects, that you were not high on Teo because he some off field issues that was unbeknownst to the public, but would eventually come to light?

  18. C HaWKs 808 says:

    What he does in his private life and on his own time is his personal business.. I just want him on the football field wearing a Seahawks jersey.. Seahawks For Life!!