Manti Te'o has gone viral. I'm sure this Heisman trophy contender would much rather his Internet fame was due to exploits on the football field, as a linebacker for Notre Dame. Before a couple of days ago, that was true -- not so much anymore. The Internet has not been kind to this young man, who appears to have been hooked by an Internet catfish scheme.
The term "catfish" is a fairly recent one, meaning someone who creates a false persona online. The false persona that ensnared Te'o was of a young woman named Lennay Kekua, battling leukemia. This persona came complete with photos, since discovered to belong to 23-year-old Diane O'Meara from Torrance, Calif. Imagine her surprise to find out her image was used in an Internet hoax. According to a relative, the O'Meara family "found out about it yesterday. They were shocked."
No more shocked than Manti Te'o, who, so the storyline goes, fell in love with some who didn't exist and later was so devastated at her supposed death, it affected his performance on the field. The current favorite for perpetrator of this elaborate hoax is Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who knew Te'o and was, apparently, a high-school classmate of Diane O'Meara. So much for six degrees of separation.
According to news reports, in an interview with ESPN, Te'o "insisted he had no role in the bizarre hoax involving his 'dead' girlfriend." No role? He was thick in the middle of the whole thing. There's an old adage that says, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." As the convoluted details of this cautionary tale about the power of make-believe continue to twist and turn, Manti Te'o has a decision to make. He needs to look himself in the mirror and figure out why he was fooled so many times.
He needs to figure that out because others are asking the same thing, including NFL scouts, one saying, "It's obviously a red flag ... There will be a lot of questions of why, and what was to be gained, and what did you learn from this." If all Manti Te'o learns is that he had "no role," that would be the wrong lesson. Figuring out his role is crucial going forward.
Adults get in and stay in relationships for all kinds of reasons. When people have a choice, their choice of relationship says a great deal about who they are and what they need. I think Manti Te'o should figure out why he was so drawn to this relationship in the first place and what it says about him. I can only imagine there were a plethora of red flags about Lennay Kekua. Red flags that were dismissed, covered over or explained away. Lennay Kekua, the person, didn't exist, but Mandi Te'o's need for Lennay Kekua was very real. Discovering the "why" behind the need is even more important than figuring out the "who" behind the hoax.
I hope Manti Te'o figures it out. Up to a few days ago, he gained notoriety because of his prowess, skill and competency. Now his name has become a viral punch line. Te'oing has replaced Tebowing, as the latest Internet meme -- posting pictures of yourself interacting with non-existent people. In April, the San Jose Giants will host a "Lennay Kekua Night," with catfish on the menu and fans encouraged to "bring their imaginary or real significant others to the game for free." In May, the Florence Freedom will hold a "Manti Te'o Girlfriend Bobblehead Night," with the first 1,000 fans getting a box with nothing inside.
This is a crisis of character for Manti Te'o. Scouts around the NFL and people around the country are wondering what Manti Te'o is made of. They wonder if his judgment and character are as non-existent as Lennay Kekua. I hope he figures it out and proves them wrong.
Follow Dr. Gregory Jantz, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gregoryjantzphd