January 18th, 2013

Billy Reed: Tackling the Te'o Quandry


Billy Reed

Executive Editor

Billy Reed: Tackling the Te'o Quandry
photo from foxsports.com

Reed lays out the Te'o mess from his unique perspective

Many years ago I went to the Jefferson County Jail to interview Tom Payne, the 7-foot-1 former University of Kentucky basketball player who had been convicted of multiple rapes in Georgia. Payne argued that he had been set up by racist police, and in the mid-1970s, not so far removed from the civil-rights violence in the Deep South, that was not an unbelievable assertion.

So I wrote a column for The Courier-Journal arguing that Payne deserved a second chance. He eventually got his parole, and, after a short playing career with the Louisville Catbirds of the Continental Basketball Association, he went to California and once more got arrested and convicted of rape.

I felt horrible. I felt that I had been duped. I swore that I’d never again let my do-gooding heart get the better of me. I vowed to become more skeptical and discerning.

But human nature is difficult to change, and I continued to give people the benefit of the doubt – long after they deserved it, in some cases. I tried to believe Pete Rose, Roger Clemens and Joe Paterno. I didn’t get snookered as much by Lance Armstrong, maybe because I’m not a bicycle-racing fan.

And that brings me to the bizarre case of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, which takes fraud to new heights.

I didn’t know much about Te’o until I attended the Michigan-Notre Dame game on Oct. 22 in South Bend. Walking toward the stadium, I noticed a lot of Irish fans wearing leis. I was told they were showing support of Te’o, a native of Hawaii who had lost both his grandmother and his girlfriend within the space of 24 hours only a few days earlier.

That night Te’o had a fantastic game, making a couple of interceptions and several tackles to lead the Irish to victory. He said afterward that his girlfriend wanted him to stay home and play instead of attending her funeral. It was a touching Notre Dame story that ranked right up there with the dying Gipper urging the Irish to win and the story about Rudy, the determined walk-on who finally got to wear the gold helmet in a Notre Dame game.

One of my former employers, Sports Illustrated, had a writer at the game that night and I looked forward to his story in the next week’s magazine. He did a beautiful job. The girlfriend had died of leukemia and, since I have a form of that disease, I was completely taken by the story.

When it came time to vote for the Heisman Trophy, I picked Te’o over Texas A&M’s Johnny Football (I had U of L’s Teddy Bridgewater third on my ballot, by the way). I figured he was the best player on the nation’s top-ranked team, but I also concede that his touching human-interest story gave him the nod. He seemed to be the sort of kid we would all like our sons to be.

The bowl games made me feel a bit of buyer’s remorse. Where Johnny Football was simply amazing in A&M’s win over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, Te’o played his worst game of the year against Alabama in the national-title game. Now, in retrospect, we know he had something else on his mind.

Thanks to the reporters from the Deadspin website, we now know that the story of about the girlfriend was a hoax. We don’t know who concocted it or why. We don’t know whether Te’o was a victim or a co-conspirator. We don’t know how it might impact his stock in the NFL draft.

We don’t know much of anything, in fact, except that lots of editors and reporters are beating themselves up for accepting Te’o’s story at face value instead of checking it out. All the nation’s best and most credible news-gathering organizations bought the lie despite a series of red flags.

Nobody found it strange that no photo existed of Te’o and the girl together. Nobody found it strange that he never visited her in the hospital when she was dying. Nobody sent a reporter to the funeral or asked The Associated Press to cover it.  And what about the contention by Te’o’s father that the girl visited him in Hawaii? On and on it goes, one lie piled on top of another.

Given how the reporting process works at places like SI and The New York Times, you would think that a fact-checker would have stumbled upon the hoax, even if by accident. But none did. Editors and researchers are every bit as guilty as the folks who wrote the stories.

If there’s anything good about it, it shows that journalists aren’t necessarily the unfeeling creatures we’re often portrayed as being. Everybody respected Te’o’s request to respect the privacy of the girl’s family. Was this just part of the cover-up? Or had he really gotten so deeply involved in an Internet romance that he really believed there was a family to bother?

My younger friends tell me that Internet romances are not uncommon. They tell horror stories of friends who have been duped by on-line predators. But I’m old-fashioned enough that I simply find it hard to believe that it’s possible to get emotionally involved in a relationship without ever seeing or touching the other party.

So is Te’o incredibly naïve and trusting, as Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick suggested in an awkward news conference? Or is he party to one of the most incredible hoaxes in sports and journalism history? Or is the truth somewhere in between?

Whatever, Te’o’s life has been changed forever. Here was a guy who was more than just a great linebacker. He was an inspirational leader, a “character guy” both on the field and in the locker room. But now he’s a punch line. He has lost something important that he can never get back.

I feel badly for all the parents who held up Te’o as a role model to their kids. What do they tell them now? What do they do with all that Te’o merchandise that was such a hot seller among the Notre Dame faithful?

I feel badly for everyone who contributed to the American Leukemia & Lymphoma Society as a way of honoring Te’o and his girlfriend. The money is needed and appreciated, but no organization wants donations given under false pretenses and phony appeals to emotion.

Whatever the truth, I’m confident that Notre Dame didn’t know anything about the hoax and will not be part of any cover-up. I’ve known, and worked with, John Heisler, the university’s veteran sports information director, for years, and I can promise he will do the right thing.

Had I been working at SI and assigned the story, I honestly don’t know what would have happened. I’d like to think that I’m a good enough reporter to have sniffed out the hoax. And yet the lie is so big, and so outrageous, that I could easily have joined the pack and bought into it.

Say it ain’t so, Te’o.

But only if it’s the truth.



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