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On Faith, Mante Te’O’s fake girlfriend and the Age of Narrative

by Frederick Sparks

Manti Te'O“Faith is believing in something you most likely can’t see, but you believe to be true”  – Manti Te’o

In what has to be one of the oddest stories of the new year, the story of celebrated Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’O’s triumphant performance against arch rival Michigan after losing his girlfriend to leukemia was revealed to be a hoax.  Questions remain as to the true perpetrator and victims.

Te’O and Notre Dame claim that, to the recent surprise of both, the athlete was the victim of an elaborate twitter hoax in which he was fooled into carrying on a year long, online relationship with an internet impersonator claiming to be a female Stanford student battling leukemia.  Presumably sources have identified the perpetrator of the online hoax as Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a fellow athlete and family friend of Te’O’s.  The university claims to have investigated the matter and stands by the story of a hoax.

Yet certain facts don’t appear to conform with the notion of Te’O as an until recently unwitting dupe. For one, news outlets reported details of the relationship between the two that implied face to face interactions, specifically their first meeting in 2009 after the Stanford-Notre Dame game. Where did this story come from if the entire relationship happened on line? If it came from Te’O, he lied.  If it didn’t, why didn’t he correct it or become suspicious at the time? And Notre Dame also claims to have adequately investigated allegations against a Notre Dame football player for the rape of a young woman who later committed suicide, yet the investigation appears to have been perfunctory. It clearly wouldn’t be the first time a university covered up sexual assault to protect its interests.

Te’O himself also relayed stories of nightly phone calls from the hospital and notification of his girlfriend’s death from a family member that seem incongruent with claims of an online hoax. Friends and relatives of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, while implicating him, also speculate that Te’O was in on the scheme. The defensive standout collected numerous prestigious college football awards on the way to one of the Heisman competition’s highest finishes for a defensive player.  In addition to outstanding play against Notre Dame’s opponents, the poignant story of Teo’O’s victorious play days after losing not only his girlfriend but beloved grandmother (that part is true) enhanced his profile and image, and possibly his projections as an NFL draft pick. The assessment of Te’O’s potential as an NFL defensive player may have slid considerably though after a less than dominating performance in the Irish’s blowout loss to Alabama in the national championship game.

Te’O, a Mormon of Samoan descent, said that his decision to attend Notre Dame over his childhood favorite USC came down to faith. If he were truly an innocent victim, then may his story stand as a cautionary tale and testament to the limitations of knowledge claimed purely on the basis of faith, and that skepticism has day to day application, including confirming that someone you declare on national television to be your girlfriend actually exists.

But if he is complicit, it not only speaks to a personal callousness bordering on pathology, but to a larger obsession with and emphasis on constructing media narrative, in a way that marginalizes the lived experience those narratives are supposed to represent.

These yarns nonetheless can determine outcomes, particularly with a news media complicit through volition or lack of diligence.

See Wag The Dog.