By GAIL COLLINS
January 18, 2013
There is nothing the world loves more than an athlete who’s playing the game on behalf of a dying loved one.
In the land of sports, people who have terminal illnesses are always more interested in the team’s fortunes than in having their son/brother/lover/best friend at their bedside. The story’s been a staple ever since the expiring Ronald Reagan told Notre Dame to “win just one for the Gipper” in “Knute Rockne — All American.”
And now we have Manti Te’o, the star linebacker for Notre Dame, whose dying girlfriend turned out to be imaginary. But imaginary with a lot of team spirit. “Babe, if anything happens to me, you promise that you’ll stay there and you’ll play and you’ll honor me through the way you play,” she told him when she was critically injured in a car crash, fell into a coma and then emerged to learn she had leukemia. When she was conscious, she devoted much of her time to writing inspirational letters to Te’o before each game.
Such a girlfriend does not exist. Somebody made her up, and the sports world is currently debating whether Te’o was the victim of a hoax, or part of the conspiracy.
All I can say is, the story tells you a lot.
Fans cheered when Te’o played through what he said was the day of the funeral of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who died on the same day as his actual grandmother. (“I knew...that my girlfriend and my family would want me to be out there. They wouldn’t want me to be sulking over things,” he told Sports Illustrated.)
It’s the American way. But as the story unfolded, it turned out that she didn’t ever require his presence. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Te’o said that at one point, he was on his way home to Hawaii for summer break when the comatose Lennay almost died in a hospital in California. “They were scheduled to pull the plug while I was in the air,” he told Sports Illustrated.
It didn’t seem to occur to him that he might have dropped by. Do you think this is a young-man fantasy — a girlfriend so lacking in neediness that you don’t even have to visit her in the hospital while she’s in a coma followed by leukemia?
In fact, there was apparently never any physical connection. They talked on the phone. Texted all the time. But the star linebacker — who reportedly saw other flesh-and-blood girls on campus — didn’t seem to feel this special romance was lacking anything simply because it had no three-dimensional aspects.
Maybe in an era when “dating” seems to mean “send texts about whether to get together later,” this counts as a fulfilling relationship.
It’s possible Te’o was the credulous victim of an elaborate trick. But he was surrounded by a veritable army of coaches, chaplains and mentors, who were presumably privy to the Lennay saga from the start. Certainly they knew all about it when the Notre Dame publicity machine made it a core part of the football team’s undefeated-until-the-championship-game season. But nobody seemed to raise an eyebrow.
If you listened to the story while sitting next to Te’o on a bus, you would have warned him not to tell a national TV audience about this girlfriend until he got some proof she actually existed. (“We met just, ummmm, just she knew my cousin. And kind of saw me there so. Just kind of regular,” he told Sports Illustrated.)
But nobody at Notre Dame seems to have paid enough attention to figure out that the girl at the center of their winning-season story existed in the same universe as the Little Mermaid.
Right after Christmas, Te’o told his coach that a woman who sounded like the dead girlfriend had called him to say she wasn’t deceased after all. The coach told the higher ups, and Notre Dame hired an outside firm to investigate the case. When an exposé broke on the Web site Deadspin, the school’s athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, held a press conference to tearfully announce that the investigation showed that Te’o was the victim of a “very elaborate, sophisticated hoax perpetrated for reasons we can’t fully understand. But it had a cruelty at its core.”
This all occurred a couple of years after the Notre Dame team was involved in a genuine tragedy when a freshman from a neighboring girls’ college reported she had been sexually assaulted by a football player. The school did not order up an outside investigation. In fact, there appeared to be no investigation at all. After a period of dead silence in which she received a threatening text from another player, the girl died from an overdose of medication. Nothing else happened. Writing this week in The Washington Post, Melinda Henneberger, a Notre Dame graduate, noted that “my alma mater held the kind of emotional news conference for the fake dead girl they never held for the real one, Lizzy Seeberg.”
Game’s over. Notre Dame loses.