A college football player—cameras rolling, microphones thrust in his face—held forth about his girlfriend. He claimed they met in person in California and in his home state of Hawaii. She was supposedly the love of his life. She was in a car accident. Then she tragically passed away. Not from the accident. From a terrible disease. Now it turns out that she never existed. A strange story indeed. The early take on this: it was all a hoax perpetrated by the player and his family to burnish his image and stoke media interest. After all, cui bono? The once Heisman Trophy candidate, that’s who!
Days have passed, additional details have come out, and it looks like he was the victim of a hoax. But what about the in-person meetings? And the pictures? Some other girl. Decidedly not the dead girlfriend. Maybe he: (1) thoroughly believed she was real based on remote interactions; (2) tried to burnish his image and stoke media interest by speaking of their relationship in exaggerated terms; (3) learned she wasn’t real (which meant he was caught in a very awkward situation); and (4) decided not to come clean publicly until others broke the story. If true, well, there are the makings of a good blackmail scheme in there. Relatively naive jocks soon to have millions of dollars probably make good blackmail targets. If there’s anything to that, the story coming out was the only way to eliminate the blackmailer’s leverage. Or maybe the people behind the hoax wanted something other than money: to get close, intimately close, to a sports celebrity.
The whole sordid affair makes me lament the cult of celebrity in general and the Olympics-on-TV-ification of big-time sports in particular. I love sports. I love the sports part of the Olympics. However, I find the endless parade of “human interest” stories thrust upon us during Olympics coverage on American TV almost unbearable. For me, excellence in sports is more than enough. I don’t go in for weepy, maudlin, and strangely repetitive stories about each athlete’s uncool hometown, adolescent struggles with halitosis, or whatever. Most jocks just aren’t that interesting when they are not doing the one thing that they are freakishly good at!
It should be more than enough that Manti Te’o was an excellent college linebacker. I don’t really care to know all that much about his girlfriends, real or otherwise. The media came to Te’o looking for a compelling “human interest” story. Te’o gave them everything they wanted. It looks like, at best, he embellished some details. Exaggerated. Told some foolish lies. That’s a shame, and Te’o has been ridiculed accordingly. Take note! Honesty is the best policy! Unfortunately, however, I doubt the Te’o affair will make media types stop asking me to care so much about what athletes do off the field. And the people behind the hoax, apparently worshiping at the altar of celebrity, are just a nauseatingly creepy symptom of a much larger disease.