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Manti Te’o committed no crime

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It is a love triangle for the 21st Century: a real man, a fake woman and a bunch of Internet impostors. Still, I do not understand the anger directed at Notre Dame senior linebacker Manti Te’o. Whom did he hurt?

Yes, it is a bizarre story. As a freshman, Te’o says, he establishes a Facebook relationship with someone he believes is an attractive young woman named Lennay Kekua. He says he falls in love. He never actually sees Lennay, although he speaks to someone he believes to be her on the phone, comforts her when he believes she is ill and mourns her loss when he believes she is dead.

OK. As I said, bizarre. But not entirely without precedent. Centuries ago, people who never met courted through letters. Friends have been made through pen pals. Jailhouse romances blossom through correspondence.

Such things rarely get attention. And neither would Manti Te’o — had we in the news media not insisted on turning him into a folk hero.

After all, there is no obligation for a Notre Dame football player to have his private life become a national conversation. Yet news that Te’o lost his girlfriend on the same day his grandmother died (the grandmother part is true) was too good to resist.

So Te’o was immediately asked about his heartbreak. He expressed grief over national television. People were moved. And the hero-making machinery was revved to full throttle.

It is that machinery that is most angry. Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel wrote this Saturday:

"If Te’o truly wants to clear the air, he needs to sit down in front of a camera. He needs to show emotion, and he needs to show remorse. ... Many of his fans and followers still feel betrayed. He needs to apologize for his part in embellishing and perpetuating the myth of Kekua."

Really? Why? What does it matter? Did he take money from those fans? What did "the myth of Kekua" do except momentarily interest people? And we in the news media perpetuated it as much as he did.

Yes, it’s strange that reporters might now require proof of existence for a dead loved one. But if you want to bang your fist, shouldn’t it hit the table of the people who invented this fake woman, kept this hoax going, made up phony relatives and even phony details about a funeral? What kind of sick minds consider that fun?

Te’o, by nearly all accounts, apparently was duped for at least most of this affair. The fact that he may have learned about the deception days or weeks before publicly admitting it — or that he lied to his father about once meeting the woman — is regrettable, but not a crime. I imagine he was embarrassed. Ashamed. He had become almost legendary in a single season. Asking a 21-year-old to immediately and voluntarily undo that is unrealistic, even if it would have been more ethical.

But whom did he hurt? What did he take? Why should any of us be that involved in the love life of a 21-year-old stranger in the first place?

"I wasn’t faking it," ESPN quoted Te’o as saying during a long, off-camera interview Friday. "I wasn’t part of this."

Why do we all need to be?

There is actually a much bigger issue here. In a computer world, people can portray themselves not as who they are, but who they want to be, and fall in love with others doing the same. It’s as if our shadows are real and our real selves only a dark reflection.

Te’o is not the only victim of such ruses, which carry the nickname "catfishing." MTV already has a reality show about it. A "reality" show about being fake. If that’s not an irony for our time, I don’t know what is.

I feel sorry for Te’o — not over this news media hailstorm (which will be over soon) but because he referred to his relationship with Lennay in a released statement as "what I thought to be an authentic relationship."

It’s not authentic when you don’t even meet. Nobody kept Te’o from visiting Lennay over the years, or insisting on seeing her — long before he became a household name. Yet young people today live in such a virtual world, some actually consider romance a body-less enterprise.

Te’o said he would sleep with his phone next to him, his "girlfriend" on the line, which is sad, but still better than a college star who sleeps with lots of real women, then leaves them. Anyhow, it doesn’t warrant such righteous anger. We are way too infatuated with other people’s stories. Is it any wonder people keep embellishing them?

 

Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

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