MANTI TE’O: ANOTHER NARRATIVE BITES THE DUST
I’m not as much of a fan of the nerdier-than-thou webcomic XKCD as I used to be, but this one-panel strip has stuck with me:
It gets at something that not many fans or commenters like to admit—sports are only personal because we make them personal. There’s nothing inherently heartwarming or heroic about a bunch of men competing for arbitrary achievements on ritualistically demarcated fields and courts. If you like, you can take a step back and view athletes and statistics and win-production machines: “Tom Brady is my favorite football player because he accumulated 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns while only accumulating 8 interceptions. This positively affected the Patriots’ win-loss record, and the Patriots are the favored team of the geographic region in which I came of age.”
But of course athletes, like Dungeons & Dragons characters, are not just collections of numbers—they require backstories to get our attention. The most common athlete backstory is the Upstanding Young Man. Upstanding Young Men have high Charisma scores and generally Lawful Good alignments. They’re married or in long-term relationships, usually to a high school or college sweetheart; they either don’t drink or don’t drink too much; they Inspire Their Teammates and have Leadership Qualities; occasionally their lives may be Touched by Tragedy, in which case they are even more Upstanding for having Overcome Obstacles (almost all successful athletes have Overcome Obstacles, otherwise there’s not much that can be written about them).
Until yesterday, Manti Te’o, the star linebacker at Notre Dame, was an Upstanding Young Man among Upstanding Young Men. He was a Mormon (no danger of him Succumbing to Temptation!), he had Leadership Qualities out the wazoo, and his life had been Touched by Tragedy thanks to the death of both his grandmother and his saintly girlfriend. He still played in a game when he could have gone to his girlfriend’s funeral and intercepted two passes in a Notre Dame win—talk about Overcoming Obstacles!
Then, of course, it all went to shit, thanks to this excellent Deadspin expose, which you should read if you haven’t already.
The short version of the story is that Lennay Kekua, the saintly girlfriend who loved Manti with all her heart and died with his name on her lips and inspired him to etc. etc., never existed. She was a hoax, an invention of some malicious people who (Notre Dame and Manti say) fooled a naïve—and potentially no longer all that Upstanding—kid for reasons that are yet to be revealed.