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It All Comes Down to Virtual vs Real

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Late Thursday afternoon I was driving home and did the usual... I clicked on NPR for whatever program was on the air. listened intently as the reporter told the story of a Notre Dame football star, Manti Te'o, who was fooled into believing that a virtual romance with a woman was actually real.

After discovering that he had been the victim of a hoax, Te'o, a Heisman Trophy runner-up, perpetuated the story by telling tales of the woman's early death from leukemia in September. Living as though the virtual is actually the real has become so widespread and, in this case, we get to see how deep into our world the virus has traveled.

Associated Press writer, Tom Coyne, says that the debate in sport circles centers around the question of "whether or not Te'o and the university were complicit in the hoax and misled the public, perhaps to improve his chances of winning the Heisman." For those of you who don't follow football, the Heisman is the biggest honor one can achieve in college football. In time we will know if this is or isn't another story of an athlete cheating to get ahead.

Beyond the sports arena, this story personifies how out of touch we are as a society -- that someone can think they are having an intimate relationship when they've never, actually, seen or met the person. With the proliferation of the Internet and social media, young people, in particular, have disincentive to be real and experience the vulnerability that comes with being in a real relationship. For years now, college officials recognize that it's rare for students to couple; instead, the majority of college students opt for hanging out in groups and having "friends with benefits." The practice of engaging in difficult conversations or putting up with someone's idiosyncrasies is all but a lost art form these days.

It's precisely this social norm that contributes to a football star thinking he's in a relationship with someone he refers to as his "girlfriend." As I listened to the story unfold, I became riveted to the details. I sat behind the wheel shaking my head, saddened by what results when a culture tolerates bullying and shaming of others. Once again, the Internet has been used to trick someone, resulting in public humiliation. And here again, we, the public, get to see an example of the increasing trend toward avoiding the actual up-close and personal side of being in a relationship with another person.

I hope this public embarrassment of a young adult by a so-called friend gets used as a wake-up call -- A wake-up to mothers and fathers to become more active in teaching kids values of respect, to teachers and coaches to help students develop skills for managing vulnerability and conflict, and to all adults to hold ourselves to a higher level of honesty and self-awareness in order to live in connection with what is real and not get tricked by what is, in actuality, a fabrication.

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