The Con: Manti Te'o, Notre Dame, Football, Human Nature

In a photo provided by ESPN, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o pauses during an interview with ESPN on Friday, Jan. 18, 2013,
In a photo provided by ESPN, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o pauses during an interview with ESPN on Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, in Bradenton, Fla. ESPN says Te'o maintains he was never involved in creating the dead girlfriend hoax. He said in the off-camera interview: "When they hear the facts they'll know. They'll know there is no way I could be a part of this." (AP Photo/ESPN Images, Ryan Jones) MANDATORY CREDIT

I teach anthropology at Notre Dame. I have written a book about truth and deception. I have written a different book about college. As an anthropologist I am interested in not only what humans do but what we think about what we do. Humans are fascinating. I am glad to have a front-row seat to our species.

So I need to weigh in on the story of football player Manti Te'o and his fake dead girlfriend, as revealed last week by Deadspin.

But I can't figure out what kind of story this is.

Clearly the story is about many things. I can't stop reading about it. In this particular case, each new article or story adds another dimension to a bizarre story.

But before I get into the contenders for the typology, please allow me to set a few things straight at the beginning:

  • I do not speak for nor represent Notre Dame, though I am aware of my responsibilities to my employer.

  • I have never met Manti Te'o.
  • I don't even really follow football, though it is hard to avoid hearing about big news. My husband and one of my daughters went to the championship game earlier this month in Miami, but I declined to join them.
  • Now back to this story.

    Is this a story about a gullible young man who was the victim of an easy but cruel hoax, now associated with the new verb "catfish," in a nod to a movie and then a TV series about using new media to create a false persona?

    In the most profound sense, the story goes back to all the cons that human culture and language enable, from Biblical Jacob forced to marry Leah instead of her younger sister Rachel, now translated into a medium in which virtual relationships, including phone sex, meet some human needs. Con artists understand human nature and easily exploit it for their own purposes.

    But in another sense, the Manti Te'o story resonates with cyberbullying. It is reminiscent of the tragic 2009 case of the high school girl, Megan Meier of Missouri, whose schoolmate's mother created a fake boyfriend on MySpace. When the "boyfriend" turned against the girl, she committed suicide.

    Or is it rather a story of gender and power? Allegations continue, despite Notre Dame's insistence on the appropriateness of its actions, that the corporate football machine protected a valuable young man in this case while ignoring the complaints brought by a distraught young woman, Lizzy Seeberg, who took her own life in 2010 after claiming that she had been sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player. (See some more comparisons here.)

    Or is it the story of the dominance of college football within supposedly academic settings?

    Or is it a story unique to Notre Dame, where football has long been prominent, evoking adoration and attacks?

    Or is this the story of attention paid to an easy target while more difficult ones, such as the Penn State scandal, or more general college football misdeeds, are harder to attack? Is Manti Te'o a victim or a perpetrator? How does he compare to Lance Armstrong who confessed the same week to a career full of illegal doping? Whose lies are worse?

    Who knew what when?

    Is it the story of failed journalism as the abettor of the con, where one journalist after another repeated the fake details of the meeting between Manti and his girlfriend without doing basic fact checking?

    Is it a touching but sad story of a young man eager for love?

    Is it a deliberate construction by Manti to hide his being gay?

    This story can be spun in dozens of ways. But one thing clearly emerges for me:

    Humans are vulnerable; we create our reality indirectly, using words and images, building on dreams. By our nature, our language permits the twinned characteristics of fiction and deception. We cry at movies, we fall in love with fictional characters, we speak of deities, and in some sense this is one of the defining aspects of our humanity. Yet what can be used for good can be turned to ill.

    But I need to stop reading about this and get back to my other work. The semester has begun and I have real flesh-and-blood students in front of me several times a week. I have seen them in the same room as me, and in some cases have shaken their hands or even hugged them. Not all teachers are so lucky nowadays.

    That's another education story, but one I'll analyze another time.