Much of media coverage surrounding the so-called "catfishing" of college football star Manti Te'o has highlighted the questions left unanswered. Amid an athletic industry replete with falls from grace, Te'o's repeated claims of innocence do little to address assertions that no relationship could survive on texts and tweets alone. But, according to some LDS scholars, his Mormon faith might.
Stephen Weber, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints chaplain at Yale University, has worked with thousands of Mormon college students in his 35-year career. Weber, a life-long member of the LDS church, says that those looking for answers in the Te'o controversy may benefit from a better understanding of Mormon dating.
Young men and women raised within the LDS church are counseled to wait until age 16 to begin dating. Dates often occur in group settings, with the emphasis on exclusive relationships generally delayed until the early college years. In this sense, Weber explains, the dating lives of Mormon young people are much like the majority culture.
Differences only become apparent when exploring the issue of abstinence. Unlike in many mainstream religions, a sexual relationship before marriage is unacceptable in the Mormon faith. Young members who fail to abide by the law of chastity lose entry into the temple, home to the most sacred of LDS ceremonies.
"Our church has a very strong standard of morality," said Weber. "My father was taught the same morals that I was taught and my sons were taught the same thing."
This immutable moral code can make life complicated for young Mormons living in an increasingly sexualized culture, but, as Weber notes, Te'o would not have been without a support system. But even the resources of the church can seem small compared to the pressure to appear 'normal' when at the mercy of public scrutiny.
A girlfriend, however, goes a long way toward ensuring relief.
It requires little stretch of the imagination to see the benefits of an online relationship for someone in Te'o's position. The voice on the other end of the telephone line offered emotional support but reduced temptations. This girl could be his biggest fan without becoming his biggest distraction. And, perhaps more importantly, a relationship conducted over the phone and Internet could move at a pace suitable for a shy Mormon young man.
Leaving room for this fuller vision of Te'o's motivation, reporters and readers alike may be able to move beyond assertions of stupidity to a kinder conclusion of naïve innocence.
Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a Mormon scholar and professor at the University of North Carolina, wrote in an email, "As for Te'o, his naivete, if that is what it was, does not surprise me. There is certainly a value attached to innocence at the time of marriage for the LDS church."
Though college football fans may never be certain of Manti Te'o's motivation behind maintaining a relationship that was unsatisfactory by worldly terms, critiques are not fair unless they recognize the stricter terms under which Mormons operate. As a young man attempting to live up to the moral code unique to his faith, Te'o's only fault may have been, in the eyes of his church, his greatest strength: innocence.