Manti Te’o: His Problem and Ours

Well… that was quick.

No sooner had I written about the importance of giving college linebacker Manti Te’o a break regarding what he said or knew about his “Internet girlfriend” hoax, then boom, in less than a week, the Notre Dame star admits to lying to talk show host Katie Couric.

I had already received several e-mails from John, good friend and reader of this site who, swimming in age of cynicism, believed all along that Te’o was somehow involved in the hoax from the beginning, (although that part has yet to be determined).

“Ethics… and common sense are no longer a part of sports,” John writes. “Frankly, let them all use whatever they want, then compete. Do we really care about ethics in bike riding or any sport? It is estimated that ONE BILLION dollars will be wagered on this year’s Super Bowl – from the point spread, to who makes the first down, to the number of sacks. Do I care if they are juiced? No. I don’t bet. Do I care if they legally bang a bunch of groupies for the two weeks before the game in the French Quarter? No.

“Let’s just settle with this: I wouldn’t want this guy Manti working for me in any capacity, except as linebacker where NONE of this matters.”

John’s comments remind me of a quote by comedian Lily Tomlin. “No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up!”

According to the Couric interview (Jan. 24), after his initial statement saying that “…I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies,” Te’o now admits that he did lie… but only briefly.

“On Tuesday” (Jan. 22),The New York Times reports, “the woman whose photo was used on the Twitter account of Te’o’s supposed girlfriend said the man allegedly behind the hoax confessed and apologized to her. The woman, Diane O’Meara, told NBC’s Today show that the supposed hoaxer, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, used pictures of her without her knowledge in creating a fake woman called Lennay Kekua.”

Unfortunately for Te’o, once he’s admitted to having lied, however briefly, he compromised his integrity. And once we get past the initial anger of having been deceived by anyone, the next question that usually comes to mind is, “well, what else have they lied about?”

Sadly, no matter how embarrassed or well-intentioned Te’o is to now tell the truth, it remains difficult to trust whatever he says because anything he says, everything he says carries the stigma of the first lie. And that is a problem he will continue to struggle to overcome.

However, a bigger problem belongs to all of us.

With so much lying and cheating in the news, there is a tendency to pre-judge individuals before all the facts are in. Regrettably, whenever we hear of another political, corporate, or sports-related scandal, our level of trust in individuals and institutions declines.

How does this show up?

Two years ago, I asked 120 high school students if “honesty and trust are essential.” 98 percent answered “Yes.” However, when I asked those same students, “In the real world, successful people do what they have to do in order to win, even if others consider it cheating,” 80 percent said, “Yes.”

In defining “integrity,” one student wrote, “A socially defined ‘norm’ which many people use as a substitute for a ‘conscience.’ Load of B.S., what gets between you and success.”

In a 2009 reportThe Josephson Institute of Ethics found that “Cheaters in high school are far more likely as adults to lie to their spouses, customers and employers and to cheat on expense reports and insurance claims.”

Cynicism in the young is not only heartbreaking, but calls out to all of us to work harder to change attitudes as well as behavior.

It’s difficult to maintain our ideals surrounded by reports of so many politicians, athletes, CEOs, priests, and other celebrities caught in ethics-related scandals. And yet, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet,” author-activist Helen Keller writes. “Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

UPDATE: The following Associated Press story was posted online (Jan. 26) in The Sporting News. While the story brings up more questions than it answers, the saddest aspect of the whole issue is the stance taken by the university to protect their reputation. Penn State faced a similar reputation-damaging incident. Eventually, common sense led them to hire an outside investigator to examine the issues and make recomendations.

In spite of all the twists and turns, the fact remains that Te’o admitted to lying to journalists and sports officials as he told Katie Couric in his interview. And it is that lie that will remain attached to both Te’o and Notre Dame.

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