Te'o a good kid capable of bad judgment

Evidence suggests former Notre Dame LB innocent of evil

James Brown, host of "The NFL Today" on CBS Sports, talks to Charlie Rose and Norah O'Donnell about the Manti Te'o hoax and its possible effect on his future.

In an ESPN interview late Friday night that Manti Te'o used convincingly to deny participation in a hoax surrounding his fake love interest, the former Notre Dame linebacker justified skipping the supposed funeral of the girl he fell for online.

"I didn't want the first time I saw her to be laying in a coffin," Te'o told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap.

The riveting, off-camera, 2½-hour talk with Schaap included more snippets seemingly ripped from a movie script: Lennay Kekua, the phony girlfriend, called Te'o on Dec. 6 to claim she faked her own death to avoid drug lords. A group connected to the hoax's alleged mastermind, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, showed up past curfew at the Notre Dame team hotel in Miami days before the BCS national championship game hoping to meet Te'o. Te'o and his parents, also duped, exchanged Bible verses daily with the woman pretending to be Kekua. The likely future NFL first-round draft pick refused when Kekua asked for his checking account number during one of their marathon phone calls.

Finally and most tellingly, Te'o admitted lying to his father, Brian, about meeting Kekua in person when, in fact, Te'o never hugged or held hands with the young woman he only accepted days ago never existed. Regrettably, that single fabrication spawned an unfortunate series of others the past month when a bewildered Te'o "tailored" the truth for reporters whenever Kekua came up in interviews.

"Out of this whole thing, this is my biggest regret, the biggest mistake I made," Te'o said.

Now that we have Te'o's version of the most bizarre sports story of any year, we only need Hollywood's. In it, Te'o's character would be neither the hero nor the villain but an unsuspecting male ingénue with a dramatic flair who chose embellishment over embarrassment when life started to unravel, revealing himself a good kid capable of stunningly bad judgment.

Teo's physical strength belies his emotional immaturity. He would not be the first humiliated 21-year-old to let love twist his world into a web of contradictions — only among the most famous. Given the information unearthed since Wednesday's Deadspin.com story, it seems reasonable to conclude Te'o never knowingly participated in a Heisman Trophy-inspired hoax to generate publicity as much as he unwittingly became the butt of an unusually cruel joke started via social media — or more like sociopath media.

According to Te'o, Tuiasosopo contacted him last week to confess hatching the sinister plot that took advantage of Te'o's trusting nature, sheltered upbringing and religious foundation. Until more proof emerges beyond a source in the Deadspin story who was "80 percent sure" Te'o was involved, evidence suggests he is innocent of evil. Perhaps too innocent for his own good.

Let NFL general managers debate that, though by April how Te'o handles blockers will matter to league personnel more than how he handled Schaap. This controversy involves merely the potential loss of credibility, not life, and qualifies as a travesty more than the "tragedy" Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick called it.

It was an unfortunate choice of words for Swarbrick, who let his heart guide his head. Tragedies involve real women dying, a difference supporters of late Saint Mary's student Lizzy Seeberg couldn't help but note after seeing Swarbrick fight back tears at a memorable news conference. The longer Swarbrick detailed everything Notre Dame had done to get to the bottom of the Te'o hoax, the more he invited comparisons to other scandals.

Notre Dame hired an independent investigator who wrapped up the Te'o investigation in 10 days. (Though how thorough was it if Te'o wasn't interviewed?) Campus police needed 15 days in September 2010 before interviewing the player accused of assaulting Seeberg 10 days before she killed herself. Notre Dame worked closely with the Te'o family, yet university President Rev. John Jenkins refused to meet with the Seebergs for months after their daughter's alleged attack. The starkly different approaches supported critics who insist Notre Dame's first priority is football.

As did letting Te'o's white lies perpetuate for 12 days, from Dec. 26 until the big game Jan. 7, after Te'o told Notre Dame officials. Their failure to disclose the truth included allowing a "CBS This Morning" story referring to the Te'o-Kekua relationship hours before kickoff rather than intervene and possibly create a distraction.

Forget the media. Swarbrick's toughest questions might come from Notre Dame's board members, some of whom the Tribune learned voiced concerns about the recent handling of crises and his unconditional defense of Te'o that prematurely put the university's reputation at risk.

As Notre Dame recovers from a week under national scrutiny, Te'o ultimately could emerge from this episode more unscathed than Swarbrick. You don't have to be as naïve as Te'o to believe that.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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