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The Lies He Told

Manti Te'o and a thoroughly modern scandal

TO: Malcolm Gladwell
FROM: Chuck Klosterman
[Wednesday, 9:04 p.m.]

Dear Malcolm:

I’m writing this on Wednesday night, roughly three hours after discovering that Manti Te’o’s deceased girlfriend was 78 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen. Let me open by saying I totally saw this coming. All season long, after every Notre Dame win, I would turn to my wife and casually remark, “The Irish truly have a great defense — except for all their fake relationships with nonexistent leukemia victims. That’s gonna cause problems when they face somebody from the SEC.”

That said: This is perhaps the goofiest “non-sports” sports story we’ve experienced since Tonya Harding. It’s such an aggressively modern scandal. I would guess a sizable chunk of the college football fan base doesn’t even understand how faking an online identity is possible (it appears the only real winner here is Nev Schulman). What’s interesting to me is how everyone seems vaguely outraged, but no one seems particularly angry. But — then again — what is there to be angry about? If we don’t classify Te’o as the victim, there’s no victim at all. I suppose some people might feel “betrayed” for having been tricked into caring about Te’o’s unreal romantic hardship, but that doesn’t make much sense; the public’s intangible, mediated relationship with Te’o isn’t that different from Te’o’s intangible, mediated relationship with a woman who wasn’t there.

I suppose we should start with the obvious: To what degree do you believe Te’o’s version of the events? It seems like there are three potential scenarios:

1. He was completely fooled all season (only realizing the depth of the deception a few days before reporting it to Notre Dame authorities on December 26).
2. He was initially fooled, yet continued to perpetuate the hoax even after he realized he’d been duped (either for the benefit of public relations or to hide his own humiliation).
3. He was totally complicit the whole time.

The first scenario seems remote. The last scenario is not unthinkable, but still improbable (the risk of such a lie outweighs its potential reward by a factor of 20 — it’s not like Te’o doesn’t become a Heisman finalist if his backstory only contains one dead grandma). My gut assumption is that the second scenario is what happened: He was tricked by someone with cruel, unclear intentions. He was willfully naive, and he made the massive mistake of talking about his love for a woman he’d never actually met. But people (and particularly the media) adored the story, so he just kept telling it, even after the realization that it was a hugely problematic myth. So this is the real question: Why did he keep going?

[UPDATE: OK, so now I’m watching the Notre Dame press conference led by Jack Swarbrick, the vice-president/director of Notre Dame athletics. He’s taking an inflexible “pro-Manti” stance and making an OK case for his innocence … although it’s difficult to understand how Manti Te’o could travel to Hawaii to visit his “girlfriend” without actually seeing her, unless he’s just a profoundly confused person. Going to Hawaii to see a girl and then merely texting with her (the whole time you’re there) is the equivalent of taking the Wonderlic Test and scoring a negative 36. I feel like I have opinions about this case, but it seems wrong to express them … it’s just too early in the process to make any rational judgments. To me, the most interesting (and the least credible) detail from the original Deadspin story was the unnamed source who claims to be “80 percent sure” that Te’o was complicit with the hoax (and complied for publicity motives). What a strange percentage to select. I mean, if you know someone is involved with a scandal, you say you’re 100 percent (or perhaps 99 percent) certain. If you think they were involved (but you have no evidence or firsthand insight), you probably say it’s 50-50. But what does “80 percent” represent in speculative terms? Does it mean that he has no proof (but still wants to suggest that his theory is true)? Does it mean he’s looking at the evidence objectively and has concluded that there’s an 80 percent likelihood that Te’o knew what was happening? Did he just pick a percentage at random, perhaps because the reporter kept asking him to quantify his suspicions in mathematical terms? There is something here that feels fake, and it’s not just the girlfriend.]

TO: Chuck Klosterman
FROM: Malcolm Gladwell
[Thursday, 12:43 a.m.]


Hold on. Hold on. I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Before we get into the question of what Manti Te’o did and didn’t know, can we go back and reflect on the singular genius of the hoax itself? The young girlfriend of a prominent football player is severely injured in a car crash and then dies of leukemia. It’s so good. It’s three of the great modern inspirational narratives, all in one.

The first element is: beautiful young girl dies of leukemia. It’s Love Story, right? The most influential Hollywood tearjerker of the past 50 years. Ali MacGraw dies tragically of leukemia, leaving Ryan O’Neal bereft: Love means never having to say you’re sorry.

Then there’s the “inspirational outsider” motif, which goes all the way back to Notre Dame, Knute Rockne, and the famous “win one for the Gipper” speech. Notre Dame’s star, George Gipp, is on his deathbed with pneumonia. He says to Rockne (at least in the movie version):

“I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Sometime, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.”

On the strength of that inspiration, Notre Dame rises up and beats previously undefeated Army 12-6.

Chuck Pagano, stricken with leukemia and inspiring the Colts this year from his hospital bed, is a version of this. Or remember Pete Sampras playing an epic five-setter with Jim Courier just after hearing that his coach, Tim Gullikson, had suffered what appeared to be his third stroke within three months, on his way to dying of brain cancer. Deep in the match, a spectator yells out, “Win it for your coach, Pete,” and Sampras, suffering through severely blistered feet, bursts into tears.

The crucial element of this kind of story is that the off-the-field tragedy does not diminish the importance of the game (as you would expect, logically, that it might). It makes the athlete take his task even more seriously. Sampras goes on to win the match. (Of course.) The Colts overachieve. When Pittsburgh Pirates manager Chuck Tanner’s mother died just before Game 5 of the 1979 World Series, Tanner, famously, goes ahead and manages the game because his mother would have wanted him to keep working. That’s why it’s so crucial, for narrative purposes, that Te’o didn’t go to his girlfriend’s funeral — even though, you know, a man might reasonably be expected to want to go to his girlfriend’s funeral. She told him, he said, that she didn’t want him to miss a game.

Then comes the third part — the Icarus myth. Our hero flies too close to the sun. This is the story of the star who dies tragically in a car or plane crash. The examples here are almost too numerous to mention: Steve Prefontaine, Thurman Munson, Roberto Clemente, Jerome Brown, Ayrton Senna, Derrick Thomas — not to mention the granddaddy of them all, James Dean. Too fast to live, too young to die.

Typically, these are entirely separate narratives. In a way that might not be appreciated today, Love Story is very much about leukemia. That was the culturally resonant disease of that era. It struck healthy, innocent young people, entirely at random. The death rate was close to 100 percent. The Icarus narrative is completely different. It’s not about innocence. It’s about the heroic self-destructiveness of youth. James Dean was a rebel without a cause. Jerome Brown was a man-child. The whole point of Pre’s genius is that he pushed himself to the absolute limit.

There’s a great moment in Ray Robinson’s Rockne of Notre Dame when he describes Rockne taking his team down to play Georgia Tech in the 1920s. This was the heart of Ku Klux Klan country — and the Klan, of course, hated Catholics as much as they hated blacks and Jews. In the locker room before the game, Rockne gave his usual passionate speech about pride and dedication, then suddenly lowered his voice. Robinson writes:

Arriving at this climax, Rockne slowly removed a crumpled telegraph from his pocket. In silence he stared at the words on the missive. Then he began to read aloud: “PLEASE WIN THIS GAME FOR MY DADDY. IT’S VERY IMPORTANT TO HIM.”

“It’s from Billy,” Rockne said, referring to his beloved 6-year-old son, the team’s unofficial mascot. “He’s very ill and is in the hospital.” When Rockne finished, some of the players, Robinson writes, “began to cry, while others jumped up from their perches and swore they would annihilate Tech just for Billy. Indeed, that’s exactly what they proceeded to do.”

Billy was not the girlfriend of the quarterback. He did not mortally injure himself taking drugs or driving too fast. He was narrowly and specifically in the second, “inspirational outsider” category.

So what is so fantastic about the Manti Te’o story? It is all three narratives, all in one. It’s Love Story meets Icarus meets inspirational outsider. It wasn’t enough that Manti’s love affair be doomed, that his girlfriend had leukemia, and that he drew from her death the inspiration to go out and get 12 tackles in the crucial defeat of Michigan State. She also had to be severely injured in a car accident. It’s a combo platter! It’s so over-the-top I am in awe. You couldn’t be more right that this is an “aggressively modern” scandal. Why would anyone in the 21st century settle for just one played-out story line?

What’s not modern, though, is the made-up part. “Billy,” Knute Rockne’s son? Totally healthy back home in South Bend.

TO: Malcolm Gladwell
FROM: Chuck Klosterman
[Thursday, 10:37 a.m.]


That was not the e-mail I expected to receive. Are you suggesting that lying about dead people is some kind of Notre Dame tradition?

(I realize this is probably not what you’re suggesting.)

But still: I want to address this. You reference three stories — Love Story, the Knute Rockne legend, and the Icarus myth. You mention that the Te’o scandal includes elements of all three. So does that make the concept of Te’o’s alleged blindness to this nonexistent relationship more (or less) possible? Does it make it more possible (based on the premise that all contemporary people have become unconsciously conditioned to accept certain kinds of familiar narratives) or does it make it virtually impossible to take at face value (based on the premise that this is merely the cobbling together of traditional romantic stories, assumedly cobbled together on purpose)? I still feel like “the question of what Manti Te’o did and didn’t know” is pretty much the whole story here. So what I want to know is this: Do you believe him?

Tonight, Oprah Winfrey is broadcasting her interview with Lance Armstrong, where he’s expected to admit using PEDs for pretty much his whole career (or at least to admit something, even if his denial ends up seeming like an explanation). Ever since Armstrong became a celebrity, there have been two camps regarding his possible drug use: those who were certain he was using steroids (regardless of his ability to beat tests), and those who believed he was the victim of a witch hunt (driven by the envious French). As the years have passed, the number of people in the second camp has dwindled to almost zero.

But I’ve noticed something about the people who always argued he was innocent — for the most part, they now say things like, “Actually, I don’t even care if he used steroids. Everybody in cycling uses steroids, and he did a lot of good things for society by out-cheating the other cheaters.” They all began by supporting his innocence, but — when that became impossible — they continued to support him as a non-innocent person. I wonder if something similar will happen with this case. I suspect a lot of society will want to believe that Te’o was totally bamboozled and that the entity we’re supposed to hate (and blame) is the culture of the Internet. But even if that theory slowly erodes — if details continue to emerge that suggest Te’o was aware of what was happening and might have even sculpted the fabrication — all the people who initially believed in his innocence will suddenly decide that the whole story is irrelevant (“This doesn’t take away from what he did on the field,” “He’s still a first-round pick in the draft,” etc.).

Another thing I wonder about: How much less does this story matter if the school involved is not Notre Dame?

TO: Chuck Klosterman
FROM: Malcolm Gladwell
[Thursday, 11:30 a.m.]


I guess I’m not, for the moment, as interested in the question of why Te’o allegedly believed this story as I am in the question of why we all believed this story. It is, after all, a little improbable in retrospect. There are a fair number of beautiful young women in the world, a smaller number who are girlfriends of star linebackers, an even smaller number who then have car crashes, and an even smaller number who, upon surviving the car crash, come down with leukemia during their boyfriend’s final, iconic, championship season. (And by the way, an even smaller number who go on to die of that leukemia, since the cure rates for ALL — which, I’m assuming is the kind of leukemia she would have had at that age, had she been real — are now north of 90 percent.) It’s a stretch, in other words.

But we bought it — and maybe so did he. And that’s my point: As you put it, we are unconsciously conditioned by literature and the movies and the sports headlines that we grew up on to accept certain kinds of narratives. Does it matter that it’s Notre Dame? Of course it does! If a football player from the University of Miami made up an Internet girlfriend, we would just assume that it was a part of their undergraduate major in Online-Dating Studies. T’eo is the inheritor of the grand tradition of Knute Rockne. And by the way, pretending that your own son is deathly ill in order to take down Georgia Tech is an offense a thousand times worse than making up a story about a dead Internet girlfriend, if in fact that is what Te’o did.

It’s funny that you bring up Lance and the kind of sequential rationalization that his supporters have gone through — since, I suddenly realize — that describes my attitude toward Armstrong perfectly. I like the guy! I thought he was an amazing athlete when I thought he was clean. And now that I know he isn’t clean, I can’t bear to change my mind. I suspect I’ll do the same with Te’o. My instinct here is that he was duped. If there is one thing I remember about being a teenager (or a near-post-teenager) it’s that when the subject of girls came up, my common sense went out the window. But if it turns out he was complicit in all of this, why should I change my mind? Can you answer that for me, Chuck? There is this underlying assumption in all of these sensational stories that we have an obligation to judge people in accordance with the facts — and when the facts change that our judgments ought to change as well. I happen to hate that idea. Since when does a human being have to behave like a court of law?

TO: Malcolm Gladwell
FROM: Chuck Klosterman
[Thursday, 12:31 p.m.]

The question over why we all collectively believed this story seems pretty explicable to me: There was no reason not to accept it, simply because it wasn’t important enough to question. It seemed like the typical inspirational anecdote that’s always embedded in all hack profiles about amateur athletes. I feel like I’ve heard 7,000 of these stories, especially during the Olympics: “Here is Athlete X, she is awesome at Event Y … but did you realize she also had to overcome the tragic death of Person Z?”

I never really question these stories because they don’t matter — or, more accurately, they don’t matter as long as they are true. Somehow, they only matter when they’re false.

Earlier this fall, I read many stories about how Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein didn’t even kiss his wife until they were both on the marriage altar. The public reaction was pretty much, “That’s strange, but I guess that’s nice.” It was just a little romantic detail that was widely believed, despite its superficial implausibility. Nobody thought that much about it (and — as far as I can tell — it’s completely true). But imagine if this had been proved to be a conscious fabrication. People would suddenly be outraged that Klein had lied about something they’d never previously cared about.

Now … to your (much more difficult) second question: If a Notre Dame fan loved Te’o two weeks ago — but it turns out he lied about having a dead girlfriend — is that fan somehow obligated to dislike him today?

Let’s say you and your best friend go out drinking tonight, and he makes a startling confession: As a 16-year-old, he murdered a stranger (and it wasn’t an accident — he literally killed somebody on purpose and was never suspected or arrested). He insists he was a totally different person at the time, and that he now regrets what he did.

Would this confession end your friendship?

I think a lot of self-righteous people would like to believe they’d answer that question by saying “yes,” based on the abstract argument that actions must have consequences (and that they could never be best friends with a murderer). But most of those self-righteous people are kidding themselves: In truth, they would see the past action of their friend through the prism of everything else they know about him. They would remember how different they themselves were as teenagers. They would see the murder as awful, but they could not stop loving their friend; this is because they could never stop viewing their friend as a person.

But that’s not the case with Manti Te’o (or with any other celebrity). The only things we know about “The Real Manti Te’o” are (a) what the media tells us, and (b) what he says about himself in public. We don’t really view him as a person; he’s more like a movie character who happens to exist in reality (and his words and actions are the plot of the film). As a result, our feelings about him tend to be devoid of nuance. We only know a handful of things about who he is, so that handful gets amplified. He becomes a metaphor for his actions. So we’re not passing judgment on him, even though that’s what it looks like; we’re really passing judgment on the act itself (by directing our vitriol at the individual). In other words, if someone changes their personal opinion on Te’o (or Lance Armstrong) in the wake of new evidence, they’re really just positioning themselves as being “against” the specific sin of lying to the public. It’s only tangentially related to the man himself. It’s like criticizing the music of Gary Glitter as a way to take a stand against child abuse.

TO: Chuck Klosterman
FROM: Malcolm Gladwell
[Thursday, 1:22 p.m.]

Yes. I think you are absolutely right. Manti Te’o is not a real person in our minds. He’s a movie character, and that’s why we so happily substituted the rules of sports stories for the rules of real life. Just take the simple fact that Te’o did not attend Kekua’s funeral, because — he says — she didn’t want him to miss a game. To me, that remains the reddest of all the red flags here.

In real life, the dying sometimes say things like that. But in real life, we ignore that kind of advance directive once the dying person is actually dead. The reason we go to the funeral of someone who said “I don’t want you to miss a game for my funeral” is that we are so moved by that kind of selflessness that going to the funeral becomes even more important. It’s only in the fake world of sports that the heroic move is to take that kind of statement at face value.

In the real world, if a man says to his team that his 6-year-old son is desperately ill back at home, the response of the team would be: “Then what the hell are you doing here? Go home!” Only in the alternate reality of football is the response: “Oh. In that case, we’re going to try extra hard and go out and beat Georgia Tech.” In that epic Courier-Sampras match, when Sampras breaks down in tears, Courier says to him: “You all right, Peter? We can do this tomorrow, you know.” Here we have part of the reason why Sampras was a better tennis player than Courier: Sampras is the kind of person who could block out the real world (the impending death of his coach) in the service of winning another tennis match. Courier couldn’t. He saw someone suffering and wanted to set tennis aside. But if Courier wasn’t the better player, for his decency he is certainly the better human being, isn’t he? And isn’t that the lesson of this whole sorry mess? We have a set of expectations about what makes an athlete great or what motivates a team that run contrary to the rules we want the rest of us to live by.

TO: Malcolm Gladwell
FROM: Chuck Klosterman
[Thursday, 1:32 p.m.]

That’s certainly one lesson. And I suppose another is that some people will literally lie about anything. When it comes to mendacity, nothing is off the table. Nothing is too serious or too perverse. Nothing is too dark. Which, I realize, is a reality everyone understands. But it’s still hard to accept.

Filed Under: Celebrities, Chuck Klosterman, Lies, People, Series

Chuck Klosterman is a contributing editor at Grantland and the author of eight books. The latest is I Wear the Black Hat.

Archive @ CKlosterman