It's time to confess to something I'm not proud of, but seems beyond my control: I can't get enough of the Manti Te'o story.
Days after the bizarre revelation that Te'o's dead girlfriend is not dead and, in fact, her existence was a hoax, many people complain they're tired of the coverage. Let it go, they say. Move on. We're sick of Lance Armstrong. We're sick of Te'o. Let's return to our regularly scheduled games.
I agree on Armstrong. By the second day of his Oprah confessional, I could easily channel surf every time Armstrong and Oprah's hair helmet came on the screen.
Not so with Te'o. I can't turn away.
I'm watching and listening to the coverage and analysis and reading every word. I'm even reading the comments under all the online articles. I'm getting dumber by the minute reading those comments, but I can't stop. Most opinions seem to be based on five minutes or less of thought (using the term liberally) before the commenter hit “send.” Yet I'm fascinated by people's reactions.
I'm asking myself why. Why do I keep reading? Why does this story compel me to follow? What's my problem?
I'm compelled by a combination of weirdness, media guilt and personal introspection.
This is an odd story on so many levels. We've all witnessed stories of deception before. Who remembers Milli Vanilli? But who has a girlfriend he's never met? Who carries on an online relationship, tries to meet the girl, tries to Skype with the girl, always gets derailed and doesn't suspect anything?
Who even uses the phrase “girlfriend” for someone they've never actually met?
There's also the fact this happened to Notre Dame's most famous current player, in a year when the Irish were undefeated and he was a candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Somehow, I doubt this story would have as full a run if this were the backup left tackle at Ball State. (My apologies to whoever is Ball State's backup left tackle. That's a random example, not an insinuation.)
Te'o has been bombarded with media attention since he arrived at a school that trains its athletes in dealing with the media, and the dangers of revealing too much, etc. So his complete naivety about deceiving the media is hard to accept.
Then, late Friday night, Te'o agrees to an interview off camera with ESPN. I'm confused. If he has nothing to hide, why no cameras? If you're going to talk to ESPN, aren't cameras an essential part of the deal? That was about as odd as making viewers like me who can't get enough sit through a meaningless NBA game until after midnight to find out what he said. If it wasn't going to be on camera, why not talk to the South Bend Tribune. After all, that seemed to be the birthplace of the girlfriend story.
Te'o's words in the ESPN.com report of the interview represent a guy who got played for a fool, and lied about it to cover his online-only relationship. Since there are no cameras, we can't judge his facial expressions or instinctively decide whether he's lying some more.
Speaking of the media, another part of the attraction of this story is how badly we blew it. Until Deadspin uncovered the holes in the story and showed a hoax at the foundation of everything, the media accepted the story without question.
No one tried to contact “Lennay Kekua's” family after she “died.” No one sought out the obituary or the funeral details and, if they did, they let it slide when they details weren't easy to find.
I don't cover Notre Dame regularly enough to have delved into Te'o and his story, so technically I'm not culpable in this mess. But The News-Sentinel did run at least a couple references to the “girlfriend.” If I'd have covered the team every day, I'd have probably referenced her, too. Te'o seems (seemed?) sincere. I'd have probably taken his word for it.
The media should be more thorough in reporting the next athlete's heart-wrenching story. I doubt it, though. The pressure of 24/7 immediacy isn't going away. We have to get things out first, get it online first, tweet the link.
The truth is we'll probably continue accepting people's words for things in interviews if no obvious red flags arise. It's easy to lie to a reporter who doesn't know you or your background that well. And we've got deadlines to meet. Hurry. Get it posted.
When I first entered the business, so many things were different. Five or six people read my stories before they were published. Fewer skeptical eyes are reading before things go online these days. It's the dangerous nature of the beast.
Finally, I think this story compels because it's natural to put yourself in Te'o's shoes. Would I have, in my early 20s, in a digital world, fallen for a hoax?
In this new online world, everyone feels a part of a community, exchanging opinions, sharing comments on Twitter, interacting with people you'll never meet in person. But I can't imagine the type of online involvement that led Te'o to forge a “relationship” with someone.
I did some dumb things at 22. Could I have fallen for such a hoax if it had been a digital, online era in the 1980s? I'd like to think I'd have been sharper, or at least caught on sooner, than Te'o.
There's never been a story quite as odd, unimportant and irresistible as this one. I'm sure I'll grow tired of it at some point. Considering the high-speed world we live in, maybe that will be later today.