We’re overflowing with killer story lines on NFL Championship Weekend. Colin Kaepernick might be the real-life Willie Beamon. Belichick and Brady might be headed for their sixth Bowl. The Falcons might give Atlanta its first asterisk-free championship ever.1 Joe Flacco may have usurped Eli Manning’s identity as “The Big-Game QB Who Scares The Crap Out Of You Whether You’re Going For Or Against Him.” Ray Lewis might pull off a 60-tackle postseason just three months after ripping his triceps while drawing no PED suspicion whatsoever. I could keep going and going … and that’s why we can’t waste a column rehashing this admittedly transfixing Manti Te’o story. We’re banging out a Te’o-free NFL playoff mailbag. As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers.
Q: Could we get a special All-Manti Te’o Mailbag? Isn’t this the most bizarre sports story ever?
—Derek P., Chattanooga, TN
OK, fine, maybe just a few e-mails.
Q: I have no idea what to believe about Manti Te’o, but I am also not ruling anything out. I believe that this is just the 3rd sports related story to enter the Tyson Zone along with Kerrigan/Harding & Thanksgiving with the Woods family. I know you are the best person to confirm this list.
—Jordan, Springfield, OH
SG: You’re right — I am the best person to confirm this list. I don’t know what that says about me, but you came to the right place. When a person enters the Tyson Zone, that means they’ve exhibited enough insane behavior that their ceiling of insanity has been permanently lifted. In other words, you’d believe absolutely any story about that person no matter what it was. So if I told you, “Lately, Mike Tyson has been killing bats and drinking their blood because he thinks it allows him to sleep better,” you wouldn’t doubt that story because you had already decided to believe any Mike Tyson story no matter what it was.
For a news story to enter the Tyson Zone, that means the story became so insane that you’d believe any new wrinkle relating to that story. Once the list of Tiger-related floozies/mistresses/cocktail waitress/porn stars started trickling out after Tiger’s Thanksgiving story, that Thanksgiving story hit the Tyson Zone. The Kerrigan/Harding story was unfathomable from Day 1 — if you’re under 20 years old, I can’t even begin to describe how implausible that scandal was. (Imagine Ray Lewis hiring two loser buddies to cripple Tom Brady before Sunday’s game, then nearly pulling it off, and you’d barely be in the ballpark.)2 I’d also throw in the aftermath of Nicole Brown Simpson’s murder, from the moment the LAPD spokesman said “We are actively searching for Mr. Simpson” all the way through the trial’s verdict. And finally, I’d include the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal, as well as Yankees pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson swapping wives and families in the mid-1970s. (If that happened in 2013, the Internet would break. Actually, Manti Te’o just broke the Internet, so it’s a moot point.) Those are the five Tyson Zone stories that stand out for me pre-Manti. Quite a list.
Q: Has the Te’o story already outdone the Tiger Woods story? Or would we also have to find out Te’o was running an underground fake-girlfriend ring for the schoolboys in South Bend?
SG: Please don’t forget how breathtakingly incredible that Tiger story was coming out of the gate. Put it this way: I still remember where I was when I first heard about the car accident, then saying to my wife, “Hmmmmm … this one doesn’t sound right. My shit detector is going off,” followed by her saying, “Mine, too,” and it just spiraled out of control from there. Within 24 hours, I was password-protecting my BlackBerry and throwing out all my Ambien. Just kidding. But Tiger was the single most famous athlete on the planet at the time, someone headed toward becoming his generation’s Ruth/Ali/MJ … and with one crazy incident, everything totally, completely and irrevocably fell apart. He’s never been the same. You also can’t forget how much time we spent wondering what happened that night. (I spent not one but TWO columns on the same day trying to figure it out.) That story just kept going and going and going … shit, it’s still going! Earlier this week, the National Enquirer reported that Tiger and Elin might be reconciling. So for Manti’s Catfish Hoax to surpass Tiger’s Thanksgiving, we definitely need a few more twists and turns. Am I ruling out a few more twists and turns? NO!!!!!!! That’s why this story entered the Tyson Zone so quickly.
Q: What if I told you a Heisman finalist fooled us into thinking he could tackle? “Manti Te’o: The Lyin’ Hawaiian.” A new film from ESPN and 30 for 30.
—Zach, Los Angeles
SG: You left out, “Directed by the guys from Catfish.” (Wait a second, this idea might work.) Can you remember anyone inadvertently benefiting from a sports scandal more than the guys from Catfish? They parlayed a contrived indie movie (by the way, I enjoyed it) into an even more contrived MTV series (by the way, I enjoy it), and within 24 hours, suddenly we’re using “catfishing” as a verb and these dudes are being trotted out for TV shows the same way we trotted out legal experts during the O.J. trial.
Q: Manti Te’O got me thinking: what feel-good sports story would be most shocking if you found out it was a sham? Mine would be Brian Piccolo’s story. What if the Bears faked his death because he wasn’t good enough to make the team and they wanted an emotional lift in order to sell tickets? [Gale] Sayers becomes marketable as not only a great player but a great human. Piccolo disappears and doesn’t have to deal with the stigma of being cut. Everybody wins.
—Shawn M., Midland, TX
SG: Mine would be Lance Armstrong being forced to leave Livestrong after we learned that he had been cheating with PEDs during his entire cycling career. Crap, that’s already in the works. I need more time to answer this. Regardless, congratulations, Manti Te’o — you actually inspired a reader to wonder what life would be like if this speech was a sham.
Q: Is this the strangest sports story of all time? Will we ever have a sports story weirder than a star linebacker for the highest profile school in the nation possibly making up an online girlfriend, eventually killing her off, using that as “motivation”, then claiming he was a victim of a hoax and either making the whole thing up or really being the victim of a hoax?
—Trevin, Fort Worth, TX
SG: The short answer: No. If only because the whole saga was so elaborately convoluted from start to finish that this was either (a) a phenomenal hoax pulled off on someone who was phenomenally naive; (b) a snowball-type story in which Te’o got catfished, found out in the August-September range, then decided to keep embellishing the story and making things worse over just coming clean; (c) the handiwork of one of the greatest pathological liars who ever lived, and someone who was involved in the hoax the whole time; or (d) the workings of a closeted football star who invented a fake girlfriend to throw everyone off the scent, never imagining that his career and team would take off, and that the ensuing level of scrutiny ended up trapping him within this spiderweb of lies that just kept getting worse and worse. Those are the only four acceptable answers. So yes, we might not ever have a stranger sports story than this one. While we’re on the subject …
Q: If this turns out to be a cover up for Manti Te’o being gay, wouldn’t it become one of the defining stories of our generation? It will show the pressure on the big man on campus to conform to rules put on him by his school and his faith all to the potential detriment to his professional career. If it plays out that way, hopefully his story will be a rallying cry for all the people afraid to be who they are and will go on inspire people from all walks of life to be comfortable in themselves.
—Christian P., Rochester, NY
SG: Totally agree. I hate speculating on someone’s sexuality, but you can’t deny the following point: Only by admitting he’s gay (if that were true) could everything that just happened to Manti Te’o seem, for lack of a better word, a little more normal. Most people would immediately feel terrible for him. Maybe he’d still get skewered by some less tolerant folks, but he’d also immediately become an icon in the gay community. He’d write a best-selling book, hit the talk-show circuit, make a few high-profile speeches, maybe even star in a few commercials. We wouldn’t dwell on the details of the hoax itself as much as on someone being so desperate to remain in the closet that he did whatever it took to stay there. And going forward, we’d always remember him as the guy who broke down that final barrier — the first active, famous sports star who admitted he was gay, then tried to enjoy a prosperous career in our most popular team sport. Again, the odds of this happening aren’t exactly low. But that’s just one of the many nutty things about this saga. Everything’s on the table. I’m ready to believe ANY outcome at this point.
(Last-minute update: As of lunchtime Friday, we learned that Te’o definitely kept discussing his fake dead girlfriend publicly even after knowing it was a hoax, and Shelley Smith just reported on SportsCenter that two people told her that Te’o's acquaintance Ronaiah Tuiasosopo perpetuated the entire Te’o hoax and Te’o didn’t know. Now I’m even more confused.)
Q: The only way I see Manti Te’o redeeming himself now is if he announces he’s gay. It would be the fastest fall from grace and subsequent redemption in sports history, with two possible outcomes: He is gay and he becomes the gay Jackie Robinson. Or, he isn’t gay and still becomes the gay Jackie Robinson, but is forced to live the rest of his life pretending to be gay in the worst lie gone wrong ever. Either way, I think there may be enough here for a “Fourth-and-God Part III” movie.
—Kinshuk Rajan, Stamford
SG: Especially since the Fourth and God sequel went straight to video. I never thought of that wrinkle, though — Manti pretending he’s gay because it’s his only way out of this scandal? How long would he have to pretend? The rest of his life? Through the end of his playing career? This has all the makings of becoming the single worst romantic comedy ever made — it’s like Jennifer Aniston lying about being engaged to Jay Mohr in Picture Perfect crossed with Al Pacino in Cruising, only if you threw in a healthy dash of Rudy, too. By the way, my wife would totally watch this movie.
Q: Dave Chappelle once did a bit about the unique timing of 2003′s Michael Jackson scandal. It happened when the Iraq war was spinning out of control and the economy was in the toilet, so he hypothesized that the government used Michael to get the nation’s attention off everything else happening. I’m going with the “Chappelle Theory” for Te’o. Lance Armstrong is behind this! Let’s look at the facts: Lance Armstrong is hands down one of the most diabolical human beings of all time. Not for the doping, but for the horrible things he did to anyone who accused him (from lawsuits to general harassment). Now, imagine you’re Lance Armstrong. You’re about to go on record and face the entire nation with Oprah and admit you’re a fraud. What do you do? Do you suck it up and just admit everything … ORRR HAVE YOU BEEN CRAFTILY INFILTRATING THE HEART OF ONE OF THE MOST LOVED COLLEGE FIGURES OF ALL TIME FOR MONTHS SO THAT WHEN YOU ADMIT YOUR GUILT, HIS STORY OVERSHADOWS YOUR ADMISSION!!! LANCE WAS SPOTTED IN HAWAII AS RECENTLY AS NOVEMBER 27TH!! COINCIDENCE THAT HER DEATH WAS CANCER RELATED?!?! I THINK NOT! LANCE ARMSTRONG IS LENNY KEKUA!!!! I swear I’m sober.
SG: Now THAT would be the craziest story in sports history. Sadly, I don’t think the biggest liar/cheat/hypocrite in sports history was involved in the most elaborate hoax in sports history … although they’ll definitely be heading into the Hall of Shame together in five years as part of the Class of 2018.
Q: Can anything ever top the words “Fake dead girlfriend?” Does Manti have any other option than to flee the country for the time being?
—Andrew T., Washington, DC
SG: At the very least, let’s agree that Fake Dead Girlfriend will make a great name for an alternative rock band, fantasy team name, sports blog, romantic comedy or Chelsea Handler’s next book … and probably all five at the same time. Wait, when are we getting to NFL playoffs e-mails? How many more of these can we do? (Looking … ) Good god, there’s more. I can’t stop.
Q: This mind-blowing Manti Te’o revelation deserves to be immortalized at the very least as an Urban Dictionary Entry. What about the phrase “Lennay Kekua’ed” for “simply didn’t exist?”
SG: Or, you go with “Lennay Kekua” for any situation when a friend/coworker/family member keeps talking about some significant other that nobody has ever met, and after awhile, you end up whispering to someone, “You getting a whiff of Lennay Kekua here or is it just me?”3
Q: Where does this Manti Te’o story go next?
—Alfredo, San Diego, CA
SG: Remember when Elton John remade the lyrics to “Candle in the Wind” for Princess Diana? Your move, Barry Manilow.
Q: Has there ever been a better SportsCenter headline than “BREAKING NEWS: MANTI TE’O'S GIRLFRIEND DID NOT EXIST”? The only other one that comes to mind for me is when the anchors repeatedly had to say “Purple Drank” and “sizzurp” during the Jamarcus Russell story. And how does ESPN determine what gets the “Breaking News” tag? Why didn’t we see “Breaking News: Rex Ryan has a foot fetish” or “Breaking News: LaLa Anthony might taste like Honey Nut Cheerios”? I think ESPN needs to put you in charge of this.
SG: I couldn’t handle the responsibility of being in charge of the “Breaking News” tag, especially when I’m getting irrational about my favorite teams. (After the Celtics no-showed that New Orleans game on Wednesday night, I would have been putting up stuff like, “BREAKING NEWS: RAJON RONDO DECIDES TO STICK A 40-CENT STAMP ON THE 2013 NBA SEASON” and “BREAKING NEWS: DOCTORS LOCATE THE FORK STICKING OUT OF JASON TERRY’S BACK.”) But you raise a great point: Was it really “BREAKING NEWS” that Manti’s girlfriend didn’t exist? Shouldn’t we tweak that to something a little different, like “BREAKING WTF: MANTI TE’O'S GIRLFRIEND DID NOT EXIST”? I’d like to see us blow out the WTF beat much like we blew out sports business with Darren Rovell.
Q: You always joke about the best events that would have overwhelmed social media had social media existed when the event originally happened (i.e., Tonya Harding, OJ). Does the Te’o story make the top 5?
SG: Hell yeah. That’s the first time we have ever watched a legitimately bonkers sports scandal blow up on the Internet in real time. (In retrospect, I can’t count Tiger’s accident because there weren’t enough Twitter users yet.) We were preparing for our NBA pregame show on Wednesday when the story broke on Deadspin. I had my BlackBerry on “vibrate” — within about 10 minutes, it started to feel like I had inadvertently shoved a vibrator in my pocket. Went on Twitter and … BOOM! And it just kept going over the next 36 hours. Every time I thought things were calming down, something like Pete Thamel’s gripping Te’o interview transcript from a previous Sports Illustrated feature went online and the story gained steam again. (Which reminds me … did you READ Pete Thamel’s transcript? Holy hell!) I think Te’o is going to be trending on Twitter until 2028, at least.
Q: My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who saw Manti Te’o's girlfriend pass out at 31 Flavors last night. I guess it’s pretty serious … How would you handle this Manti Te’o situation if you were sports czar??? My solution: I think we should have an NFL franchise for misfits only. The only condition being is that Tebow is the starting QB. Oh wait, we already have the Jets.
—Mateo Q, Mayaguez, Puerto Rico
SG: Hands down, that’s the funniest e-mail I’ve ever gotten from Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.
Q: You have established the Levels of Losing. This whole Manti Te’o thing has got me thinking of the Levels of Indefensibly Defending Sports Figures. There has to be a certain level to where you can’t defend your favorite stars without coming off as a pathetic, nonsensical fan. If there were five levels in all, Joe Paterno’s supporters would be the highest (Level 5). Mel Gibson’s fans are a 4 but dying to be a 5. Every Notre Dame fan defending Manti right now would probably be a 3 (with the chance to climb). This idea is in its infancy stages, how can you help?
SG: Come on, you barely need any tweaking! You were right there! Fine, I’ll help. You should have gone with six levels (you missed one).
Level 1: Reserved for harmless stuff — like Boston fans defending Kevin Garnett every time he acts like a bully or an a-hole (just because he’s on our team and we love him and that’s what you do when it’s your guy), or Cowboys fans blindly defending Tony Romo’s litany of choke jobs just because they love Tony Romo, or Miami fans refusing to admit that Dwyane Wade is an occasionally dirty player, or Utah fans arguing that Karl Malone really DID have some clutch moments. All benevolent fan-defending goes here.
Level 2: A blown-out version of the first level — the stakes are a little higher only because there’s a little more of that hits-too-close-to-home sensitivity. Like how Ravens fans fly off the handle every time someone jokes about Ray Lewis’s incident from 2000. Yes, you could throw Kobe and the Lakers fans in here. As well as Red Sox fans post-2004 right after any steroids joke about Manny or Papi.
Level 3: Any longtime O.J. Simpson fan now making the “If we’re going to make excuses for Junior Seau, why can’t we make the same excuses for everything that happened to O.J. after he retired? What if he has CTE, too?” defense. This gets its own level. By the way, I’m all-in on the CTE O.J. defense. He should start pushing it right now.
Level 4: Any Notre Dame fan pushing the whole “Look, Manti is the one who’s a victim here!” scenario. If you play the catfishing/naive angle hard enough, the “victim” door is juuuuuuuuuuuuuust open enough that they don’t sound completely insane. Just marginally insane.
Level 5: Anyone defending baseball cheaters (Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, etc.) with the always hilarious “We don’t know for sure” defense or the equally hilarious “Come on, everyone was cheating, any competitive person would have done what they did” defense. All PED defenses go here. So does everyone defending Lance Armstrong’s last two decades of lying/cheating/bullying/threatening/intimidating because “he did some real good, too.”
Level 6: Anyone who wanted the Paterno statue to stay up; anyone who thinks that Paterno and/or Penn State’s administration didn’t have an inkling that something was at the very least a little off with Jerry Sandusky; anyone who rushed out a mostly flattering post-scandal biography about Paterno without waiting for the entire investigation to play out; and anyone who said the words, “Well, this may have complicated Joe’s legacy, but it didn’t change all the great things he did.” Welcome to the highest level of Indefensibly Defending Sports Figures.
Q: [What] would be the craziest possible ending to the Manti Te’o story?
SG: Bill Belichick spending the past few years creating Manti’s fake dead girl, then hiring someone to play her on the phone, with the ultimate intent of wounding Manti’s draft stock enough that he’d fall to the bottom of the first round of the 2013 draft … right to the New England Patriots. Thank you and please drive through.4
• CLICK HERE for NFL playoffs portion of this mailbag, including Round 2 picks.