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COMMENTARY: Te'o story once hard to turn away from, now hard to believe

Manti Te'o. (Source: MGN) Manti Te'o. (Source: MGN)

(RNN) – If you want to weave a story that will tug heartstrings and rack up clicks, there are a few surefire elements that never fail. Young love, young death, Notre Dame football and cancer come immediately to mind.

One of the biggest stories in sports during the past several years included all those things – and then we found out it was a total farce.

The revelation that Lennay Kekua, allegedly the dead "soul mate" of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, was a digital apparition likely hit everyone who had followed the story with the same mixture of reactions.

It's more curious still, if we are to believe T'eo's story, how someone could get so attached to a person he had never met, someone whose existence was manifested purely in digital form.

And then the questions begin: How could such a highly fabricated story pass the eyeball test for so long? Why didn't I question something that was way too good to be true? Should I feel bad about supporting this guy and believing that he should have won the Heisman Trophy?

If you can get past the prolific use of vulgarity and unabashed hatred of certain news entities on Deadspin.com, you'll notice the writers at that site usually nail stories dead on. And they pinned this tale up there for the entire naive, bleeding-heart world to see.

Since we don't know what the truth actually is (and may never know all the details) let's try to piece together what could have happened based on the facts we have.

Scenario 1: Te'o was a gullible, foolhardy and head-over-heels in love victim.

Don't count this out so quickly. Millions of people seek love online every year. Who are we kidding? Every day. You probably know some of those people. You probably are one of those people.

We hear stories constantly of folks getting taken in by a charming "friend" with a dazzling online persona. Some of those scenarios turn out well, and some don't.

Is it so unbelievable this could happen to a 22-year-old college kid who lives in an era where digital detachment is the norm? If you were thrown into a completely different social and religious culture thousands of miles away from home and only saw your family a handful of times every year, where would you look for friends?

The easiest place you could find them, right?

"One need people have had since the beginning of time is to form relationships and meet potential mates," said Catalina Toma, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in social networking and online dating. "Why not use technology? We use it with business, with school and everything else. The internet is a useful tool for maintaining relationships with people and have lots of connections to find potential partners."

But this is deeper than that. Te'o maintained a relationship without laying eyes on this person for three years. It's hard to imagine two people making that deep an emotional connection without a single face-to-face meeting.

There wasn't even a mention of them using Skype or Facetime, and surely a pair of 20-somethings who can use Twitter could have known that current techlonlogy enables people to look at each other on their computer screens.

If Te'o was truly a lovesick puppy, he still bears some responsibility – if for nothing more than the failure to investigate his love interest more deeply. A few Google searches and some common sense could have prevented all this.

"It's important, just like face-to-face meetings, to use your critical thinking to verify information about people," Toma said. "The internet is an incredibly beneficial tool that can find out all sorts of information about people."

Scenario 2: Te'o is a flat-out liar … and so are his parents and officials at Notre Dame.

This opinion is a bit hard to argue at this point, considering so many people feel betrayed and there are so many holes in the story. Te'o also reportedly backed out of a scheduled interview Thursday, which doesn't help his cause.

Even his teammates smelled something foul, according to a report by freelance sports journalist Jackie Pepper. The story reported by Pepper quoted an anonymous player who said Te'o "lied, but the media blew it up."

Football players are a particular bunch, and they usually close ranks and protect their own no matter what the circumstances. So those comments shed light on just how much grandstanding the Fighting Irish's star player did.

Or it could just be that a team full of very talented players was mad no one else got their name mentioned nearly as much as T'eo. Who knows? But some other things just don't wash.

For instance, Brian Te'o, Manti's father, was quoted in an October 2012 article in the South Bend Tribune as saying that Kekua traveled to Hawaii multiple times when Manti was home and visited with him. Either something didn't transfer correctly between his mouth and the reporter's keyboard or we should really learn the Hawaiian term for "big fish tale."

Even if everything else about this is in question, that alone paints Notre Dame's star player guilty - he either lied to his own father, or his father was part of the ruse.

Then there was the dubious timing of the news conference by Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, complete with choked voice, tears and a reference to the internet hoax documentary Catfish.

Seriously, Jack? Aside from my doubt that he has actually seen that movie, he admitted the university knew about this since Dec. 26, and he was that broken up?

"From the outset, we established a parameter that this was Manti's story to tell," Swarbrick said during Wednesday's press conference. "We wanted to know it would be told. We wanted to know at the appropriate time when it would be told, but that it was his to tell."

Here is a translation, sans the bull: "The timing of this revelation could not have been more inconvenient. Our star player was a Heisman runner-up, and Notre Dame had more positive national publicity than it had received in decades. We're not total idiots over here, you know."

Scenario 3: Te'o was trying to hide something deeper.

There is also the possibility that Te'o was totally complicit with the person everyone seems to want to point the finger toward - Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. According to Deadspin, Tuiasosopo fabricated Kekua's entire persona using just a few images, a long string of Twitter messages and some storytelling that would have made Mark Twain jealous.

It is entirely possible that Te'o and Tuiasosopo were in collusion for some reason, and if that's the case, they had some convenient things working in their favor.

First of all, it's the internet. For some reason people think they can get away with anything they want because their actions do not take place in a physical space. Take, for instance, this Valentine's advertisement offering to build an online girlfriend.

Te'o and Tuiasosopo apparently know each other very well, and they may have seen this hoax in one of two ways – to drum up publicity for the most famous half of the duo or as a cover for some other facet of their relationship.

Or it could have started as a running joke and turned into something neither one could handle.

The missing link

There is one obscure part of this story that no one disputes but at the same time is not talking about – Te'o apparently had phone conversations with a woman claiming to be Lennay Kekua. If so, then there is at least one other conspirator who is not getting nearly enough attention.

It's possible Tuiasosopo had a female accomplice to help him achieve his evil ends, but who in the world is she?

And what is the deal with the message that is on Kekua's fake Twitter account: "Love MSMK."

In addition to the personal effects of this scandal, Te'o could also take a major hit professionally. Alabama's football team exposed him as a player who would have trouble taking on NFL-type offensive lines and now there are potential questions regarding his character. And if you think the only things NFL teams care about are a draft prospect's ability to memorize X's and O's and perform on Sundays, you should look up something called the Wonderlic test. It's a psychological exam that, at this point, Te'o looks like he couldn't pass even if, well, he lied.

I don't totally let the NCAA off the hook in this, either. An organization that spouts junk like integrity and actions in the best interest of players watches coaches dodge contracts and allows schools to hop leagues.

Everything in college football today – including that BCS system – is in the interest of self-promotion. So how do you expect players not to follow suit by getting all they can now and worrying about the consequences later?

It's an interesting position for Te'o, once the sweetheart of people everywhere.

Not long ago, few of us could keep from cheering for him, and now no one can force themselves to believe him.

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