Notre Dame is notorious for covering up sexual assault allegations involving its football players, but the school declared star linebacker Manti Te'o a "victim" within mere hours after the news broke that his saintlike dead girlfriend never actually existed. Why is Notre Dame in such a rush to assert Te'o's victimhood while the investigation is still proceeding? Easy: because it strengthens the hero narrative the school relies on for profit and glory. Acknowledging the real victims of jock culture only hurts that narrative.
Did Te'o make up Lennay Kekua, his fake girlfriend who, he told multiple reporters, died of cancer on the same day his grandmother passed away and hours before he led his team to an epic (and selfless) victory against Michigan State last fall, or did he fall for an outlandishly cruel and convoluted internet hoax? His university claims the latter, and says Te'o is an even more inspirational hero for grappling with the soul-crushing trauma of realizing the deceased love of your life was never actually alive. Here's an official statement:
On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te'o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia. The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.
Jack Swarbrick, the school's athletic director, actually broke down and cried while discussing Te'os victimhood during a 40-minute press conference last night. "Every single thing about this was real to Manti," said Swarbrick. "There was no suspicion. The grief was real, the affection was real, and that's the sad nature of this cruel game."
Compare Notre Dame's reaction — the immediate and immense support, the resources (they hired private investigators!), the positive PR — with that of Notre Dame's head football coach, Brian Kelley, when a 19-year-old student named Elizabeth "Lizzy" Seeberg killed herself nine days after accusing a football player of sexually assaulting her in a dorm room:
"I am not going to get into the specifics. I can tell you this. From my standpoint as the head football coach, I think it was made clear that the university is going to deal with any matters of this nature. And that for me... one of the reasons I came to Notre Dame is that I have the same standards that our University does. We are in lock-step relative to the standards that we hold her at the university of Notre Dame. That's really for me all I can give you relative to the specifics."
Seeberg died in 2010. The player she accused — whom Notre Dame investigators failed to interview until 15 days after Seeberg reported the attack and five days after she killed herself — was found "not responsible" and didn't miss a day of football practice. In fact, he played in the BCS National Championship game last week.
There isn't much use bemoaning how the Deadspin story on Te'o's fabricated love racked up millions of pageviews in hours while relatively few people know, or care, about Seeberg, who is actually a real woman — and not the only woman we know of who was too intimidated by the Notre Dame football team to report being sexual assaulted by one of their own.
The Deadspin story is fascinating on so many levels: it's a tale of a renowned hero who is either inconceivably naive or narcissistic, who either bought into or propagated a lie about a girlfriend dying of cancer months after living through a horrible car accident on the same day as his beloved grandmother right before the most important game of his life; Lifetime movies are made out of significantly less dramatic fodder. It makes sense that people are now obsessed with searching through thousands of Tweets and Instagram photos to figure out who was in on it and who knew what at what point and when, exactly, it all started to unravel. It makes sense, but it's also depressing.
Te'o's story is unmistakably bizarre, but he's not a horrible person. He deserves pity if he was so incapable of making a real connection that he fell for a woman he met on Twitter who he purportedly loved but didn't know enough about to make sure she actually existed, and he's probably somewhat mentally disturbed if he was in on it — why else would a guy who is already considered inspirational due to his athletic prowess feel the need to make up such a detailed backstory, and what does that say about the pressure young athletes face to be role models? — but, either way, he's not a monster. There are way worse things a football player can do to a woman than pretend she exists.
Melinda Henneberger, the reporter who has doggedly pursued Seeberg's story, wrote an article for the Washington Post last month explaining why she wouldn't be cheering for her alma mater, Notre Dame:
What's really surprising me are those who believe as I do that two players on the team have committed serious criminal acts – sexual assault in one case, and rape in another - but assumed that I'd support the team anyway, just as they are.
"Aren't you just a little bit excited?" one asked the other day. There are plenty of good guys on the team, too, I'm repeatedly told. And oh, that Manti Te'o is inspiring. I don't doubt it. But as a thought exercise, how many predators would have to be on the team before you'd no longer feel like cheering?
It doesn't surprise me that more people know and care about Te'o than Seeberg. She's just another victim of sexual assault — one who, according to Henneberger, some officials still allege was "asking for it," because we don't like to admit that college athletes can be rapists — but Notre Dame's repeated and ready use of the term "victim" when referring to Te'o but not to Seeberg is awful.
We're still not sure what exactly went down, but we know that Te'o definitely did not miss Kekua's funeral to record 12 tackles and beat Michigan State. He never sent her white roses — her sole and simple request — and she never told him, "Babe, if anything happens to me, you promise that you'll stay there and you'll play and you'll honor me through the way you play." But, again: is falling for — or even completely making up — a fake girlfriend really the worst act a football player has ever committed against a woman? No way. Just ask Notre Dame.