Only one thing is for certain at this point and that is the fact that the tale of Manti Te’o's inspired play in the wake of the death of his girlfriend Lennay Kekua was built upon a lie.
Whose lie it was exactly we may never know and even if the truth does come out, some of us may not believe it. Regardless of that, only one other thing remains evident – we all had a hand in making this lie reality.
Certainly the biggest amount of blame depends on what story you believe.
If you believe that Te’o is a hapless victim of an elaborate and insidious hoax, then clearly the brunt of the responsibility lies with the perpetrators. However, in this scenario, Te’o is still responsible for continuing the lie after coming to know the truth and likewise, the University of Notre Dame, and the Te’o family share some blame for not getting in front of the issue and letting the truth be known.
If you believe that Te’o was complicit in the events that occurred in an attempt to boost his campaign for the Heisman Trophy, as has been suggested, then the blame is his. In that scenario, it is unclear exactly how much Te’o's family, or the university was involved, but the argument could be made that if they weren’t involved directly, they shirked the responsibility of examining the story Te’o was selling because, hey, it was the best publicity possible.
Meanwhile, the situation pointed out that in general, we in the media have fallen complacent. What makes us the vilified muckrakers of the world is the fact that our reputation says that we would approach a romantic kiss from our wives with a degree of skepticism, let alone a story being told by someone who was essentially an acquaintance with no proof to back it up.
But that’s exactly what we did.
We bought into it.
The story was too good not to be true. And who was going to question the validity of a guy’s claim that his girlfriend had tragically died of leukemia, especially when it happened around the same time as his grandmother?
A true journalist would, and that’s the sad truth.
Instead, we the members of the free press, whether we were covering the story directly or not, forgot to do what we were taught to do – verify the information with facts. No one did that. We all just bought into it.
All except the folks at Deadspin, of course.
While Deadspin didn’t present a case riddled with fact, it provided enough concrete information along with its heavy dose of hearsay to blow the lid off of the truth that Lennay Kekua was never a real person.
In the football world, the words “Notre Dame” are as polarizing as the terms “abortion,” “immigration” or “gun control” in the real, much more important world. College football fans either revel in the Fighting Irish’s successes, or relish in their failures. Deadspin, of course, falls in the latter category, which may have been their primary motivation for digging deeper into Te’o's story, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. The fact remains that they did far more than anyone else in the media even dreamed of doing and for that they should be commended.
And while the media may have told us the story of Te’o and Lennay, in the end, it was the general public who ate it up and made it all the more real. If perception truly could become reality, then birth and death certificates for Kekua would have materialized. Hospital records and police reports from her supposed car crash would be found in public records. Her picture may have shown up in the Stanford Quad, the yearbook of the college she supposedly attended. Heck, a pair of bronzed baby shoes may have appeared in someone’s attic.
The American people bought it because we are so desperate to find our heroes. With realities such as public officials’ approval ratings at staggering lows, continued poverty, unemployment and economic uncertainty, violence both overseas and within our borders, hitting ever so close to home with incidents like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, even the reminder of great adored athletes of the past now shamed, we are desperate for something to believe in.
Something that could support the belief that there is still good that happens in this world.
We wanted it, the heartbroken Manti Te’o gave it to us.
We never questioned it.
We simply didn’t want to.