Perhaps Andy Warhol’s famous quote should be amended. In the future, even fictional people will be famous for 15 minutes.
By now, most of the world has heard the too-crazy-to-be-true story of Notre Dame and Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o’s fictionally deceased fictional girlfriend Lennay Kekua. The facts are relatively few yet terribly convoluted for a love-story that might as well have been crafted by Nicholas Sparks. What is known is that Te’o purported to have a long-time girlfriend in distant California who communicated with him largely via Twitter. In a 21st Century George Glass sort of relationship, Te’o's girlfriend was a digital creation of his friend Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. The revelation of Lennay Kekua’s true identity has resulted in he-said/he-said allegations of whether Te’o was the victim or willing perpetrator of the elaborate hoax.
Captain Tuttle was unavailable for comment.
The details of the hoax have been engaging. Theories abound. Is Te’o, who is a practicing Mormon, in a homosexual relationship with fellow Mormon Tuiasosopo? Did Te’o invent the girlfriend (or at least her Lifetime moviesque demise) to play upon the heartstrings of Heisman voters? Or is Te’o the victim of a long-term ruse – perhaps the least plausible theory unless Te’o also believes he’s about to claim millions of dollars from a Nigerian prince he met via email.
The “real” motivation is less interesting than the motivations of the media, fans, and anyone else who makes up the sporting establishment to believe Te’o's lies. And whether Te’o's initial motivation was to hide his sexual orientation or not, Te’o most certainly did lie to further his career. The narrative of Te’o's loss of both his grandmother and girlfriend on the same day was by Te’o's own standards a near storybook tale of woe. Te’o's otherwise great season was bookended by every reporter gushing on his ability to perform amid such personal torment. Te’o himself declared his greatest career challenge as September 12th – the date his very real grandmother died and a very big lie about his girlfriend got even bigger with her “passing” from cancer.
The timing of Te’o's story coincides quite well with another high-profile web of lies - the Tour de Farce of Lance Armstrong’s career.
Te’o did not do what Armstrong did – no rules or laws were (as far as we know) broken. But the connection of Te’o and Armstrong lies within the motivation for their appeal – our desire for compelling narrative that overwhelms a needed dollop of skepticism. Manti Te’o having a strong statistical year is a nice story. Manti Te’o overcoming death and loss is a much better one. Lance Armstrong surviving cancer to ride again is a nice story. Lance Armstrong winning 7 Tour de France’s in the face of cancer is exceedingly better.
The fans and media’s desire for narrative to drive accomplishments can be seen even when the truth isn’t at stake. Adrian Peterson’s near record breaking year was given phenomenal coverage, as it should have been. But while Peterson may win the MVP, just a few short years ago Tennesse Titans RB Chris Johnson ran for over 2,000 yards but didn’t even receive one first place MVP vote. Why? A lot of reasons can be suggested, but nearly breaking a record isn’t nearly as impressive as nearly breaking a record after reconstructive knee surgery.
Manti Te’o, at some level, understood this. Sports ”journalism”, like most reporting, has little connection to facts and almost everything to do with emotionalism. Actions don’t count – narrative does and the anger being expressed by reporters against Te’o today is less for his lies than for what they reveal about the motivations of journalists. As one sportswriter remarked, even the man who beat Te’o for the Heisman, Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel, won in part on his ability to manipulate the media. Afterall, there was no “Johnny Football”, as Manziel is known, on the Heisman ballot.