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Parenting: The Ultimate Joke Killer (Why I Can't Laugh at Manti Te'o)

The problem is this: Whenever I see someone young enough to be my kid in a difficult situation, I tend to imagine my own kid in the same spot.
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Notre Dame's Manti Te'o (5) reacts after Notre Dame defeated Michigan, 13-6, in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Notre Dame's Manti Te'o (5) reacts after Notre Dame defeated Michigan, 13-6, in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Parenting has changed me. I knew this already, of course, but was reminded of it again in the wake of the Manti Te'o story.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I love Notre Dame. My dad, my son and I all went there (not in that order). Not surprisingly, we are Notre Dame football fans, a fact that may cause some to question my objectivity on this matter. Fair enough.

Notre Dame isn't the only thing I love, though. I also love a good joke. And boy, does the Manti Te'o story involving the fake dead girlfriend offer plenty of material for hilarious parodies and side-splitting punch lines. And in the initial few hours after the story broke, I myself enjoyed a big laugh or two at some of the captioned photos floating around on Facebook.

I'm not laughing anymore.

Based on what I know today, I find the whole ordeal about as far from funny as you can get. And my role as parent makes it impossible to appreciate any joke that is made at the expense of this college kid.

The problem is this: Whenever I see someone young enough to be my kid in a difficult situation, I tend to imagine my own kid in the same spot. This happened last year when law student Sandra Fluke was attacked by Rush Limbaugh for testifying before members of the U.S. House of Representatives about whether health insurance should cover contraceptives.

At the time my son and his girlfriend were both in law school and I couldn't help but picture them in the same position. Challenging Fluke's views was fair game, but I was outraged that she was being personally disparaged for something that was objectively commendable -- having the courage to speak before the House at such a young age.

And so it is with Manti Te'o. What made Te'o stand out to me wasn't that he was just a phenomenal football player. After all, Notre Dame had plenty of talented players on its team this year. What set Te'o apart were certain key characteristics. One such characteristic was his loyalty -- a quality that I first noticed last year when he elected to return to Notre Dame for his senior year rather than going pro. His loyalty also was evident in areas ranging from his attitude toward family, faith, community, his team, and his school.

In addition to being loyal, Te'o was open, trusting, and supportive. And these qualities were not just byproducts of the twin tragedies of losing his grandmother and his girlfriend on the same day. (One turned out to be a hoax; but the other, it's important to remember, was very real.)

These genuine qualities were on display as we watched him encounter personal adversity and then transcend it. His teammates rallied around to support him, but in the end it was Te'o that lifted everyone else up. These were the qualities that made me admire him. But sadly, these were also the qualities that made it easy to exploit him by the perpetrators of this hoax.

I've mentioned my twenty-something year old son, but I also have a middle school-aged daughter. So, in addition to considering things from Te'o's point of view, my parenting responsibilities require me to model for Hannah how to respond when someone has been humiliated by a cruel "joke."

It is tempting to join the chorus of those laughing at him. After all, everyone who loved Te'o feels a little duped right now. And making fun of him would make us feel less stupid because it would allow us to be on the side of those dishing out the humiliation rather than receiving it--a really nasty side of human nature. We desperately want to be on the winning team. We want to believe that we would never be so dumb as to fall for that -- and maybe we really wouldn't be.

But what would Hannah learn from that? That once people exploit someone's positive qualities those qualities are no longer admirable? That as soon as someone is made the butt of a cruel joke it's okay to make it a pile-on and further mock him? That anything is fair game as long as it gets a good laugh?

Consider this: what if we weren't talking about a famous college football player, but rather just a regular college kid? And what if the college kid were the victim of the same kind of hoax? "Friends" recognized his trusting nature and tricked him into thinking he had an online girlfriend. After keeping up the ruse for a long time, they later faked the girlfriend's death and the college kid was devastated by the loss. Would that still be funny?

Let's not forget that plenty of kids have committed suicide in the wake of being humiliated in similar ways. And in those instances, we don't make jokes about it and talk about how dumb or gullible the kid was. We shake our heads, we rail on about cyber bullying and mean spiritedness, and we call for legislation to protect kids from this kind of harm in the future.

Does our sympathy only kick in if there's a suicide? Is the humiliation alone not enough to make us realize that a college kid was wronged? Does the fact that Te'o was an amazing football player make all of this somehow okay?

Pointing to the fact that Te'o first learned something was amiss on December 6th, some say he should have come forward sooner. I remember watching the Heisman Trophy ceremony on December 8th wondering why he didn't seem to be his normal open and personable self. I chalked it up to nerves.

But can you for a minute put yourself in this college kid's shoes at that nationally televised awards ceremony? Forty-eight hours earlier he learned that he was punked in the cruelest of ways. His girlfriend was either not dead or never real. Her death -- something that caused him not just to endure unimaginable grief, but to do so in the national spotlight -- was one big trick. And now he stood to become the laughing stock of the entire country. Oh -- and he still had a national championship football game to play in a little over a month -- a game that had significance far beyond him individually.

Sure, he answered reporters' questions about his girlfriend after December 6th, but as far as I can tell he wasn't the one bringing her up. And the length and tenor of his answers were noticeably different than they had been before. What else was this college kid supposed to do?

I realize we don't yet have all the answers, but based on the information that is currently out there from credible news organizations (whatever that means anymore, given how long it took this story to break), this is what I'm telling Hannah: We admire Manti Te'o because of all of his amazing qualities. These qualities are no less admirable because his "friends" exploited them and humiliated him for sport. When people are victimized you don't turn on them, you stand with them. You call out the perpetrators for their behavior rather than blaming the victim.

And Manti Te'o, if you're reading, I offer you the same advice I give to people who have been cheated on by their significant others. The key is to learn what you can from the experience without letting it rob you of your positive characteristics. If you're trusting by nature, that's a good thing. But if you're the trusting type that ignores red flags, stop ignoring the red flags.

This scandal has raised a lot of questions, but there's one question that it has put to rest--why Te'o performance was as lackluster as it was in the national championship game against Alabama.

I will continue to follow this story for as long as it continues to unfold. If I find out that Te'o is not telling the truth (something I don't expect, but I've been wrong before -- I'm looking at you, Bill Clinton), then that would change everything, and Te'o would get grouped together with Lance Armstrong rather than Forest Gump.

But as it stands now, my support as well as my respect remain with Manti Te'o.

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