When I was in undergrad, in the throes of the ivory tower, I had a professor, who, in the midst of lofty theoretical discussions, would always ask, “But what’s at stake?” I have found myself pondering the same thing in the wake of this Manti Te’o business.
On Thursday, Te’o’s first on-camera interview since Deadspin broke the story will air. What he says to Katie Couric may shed more light on the situation, and give the public more to work with in deciding whether or not Te’o was in on the hoax, but barring a full confession, we will probably never know, as Deadspin’s Timothy Burke notes.
And if we do find out the truth, what then? Honesty and trust are important, and I’m not trying to minimize that, but they are of import in relational context, and most of us don’t have a real relationship with Manti Te’o. The Te’o story has legs in the first place because of expectancy violations. If a college athlete or two comes under question for sexual assault, we nary bat an eye, for sadly, we have somewhat come to expect such occurrences. But fabricating the death of a fake girlfriend/falling prey to a hoax? The internet breaks.
Other than Te’o, There are a variety of known stakeholders in this: Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, Notre Dame, NFL teams, Deadspin, other sports media, the makers of Catfish. These are people and organizations who stand to gain or lose something from this whole episode, whether directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally. For these people and groups, Te’o holds a positive reward valence (under Expectancy Violations Theory), meaning because of their ties with him, what happens with Te’o can reward or punish them.
Absent from the list of stakeholders is us, the general public. For the most part, Te’o is someone with a negative reward valence to us. What happens with him really will have little to no effect on our lives. Maybe we become a little more cynical, and are more suspicious when we hear heartwarming stories in sports (remember, though, Te’o’s grandmother did actually exist, and did actually die), but we probably shouldn’t have embraced those narratives to that extent in the first place, anyways. Maybe we don’t send our kids to Notre Dame. Maybe we read Deadspin more often.
Maybe we get to feel smug for a few hours, because someone who has greater athletic ability than us and will most likely end up making more money in one year than we could ever dream of, was a trusting sap/pathological liar. We might be unathletic and will be in a lower tax bracket, but, hey, we get to point to a flaw in his character, an instance where his insecurity was on display for all, and/or an incident where he was taken for a fool.
We get a new meme, Te’oing, and have some fun with it. Construct a few playlists with “Call Me Maybe” and Clay Aiken’s “Invisible” on it. Watch a few episodes of Catfish on MTV. Huddle around the water cooler with people who we don’t actually like all that much and collectively shake our heads at Te’o.
We still don’t really know how to handle online relationships and personas all that well. We are more open to the possibility and reality of gay athletes, as the speculation on Te’o’s sexual orientation reveals, but we still speak clumsily about it. We still operate with monolithic ideas of masculinity. Commentators have repeatedly expressed their confusion as to why a star college athlete would engage in a relationship exclusively online and/or construct a fake girlfriend. This confusion has sometimes been used as proof of Te’o’s complicity in the hoax—“I just can’t believe a star football player would settle for an online relationship, so he must be in on this!” Instead of immediately swallowing the confusion with our archetypes of athletes, perhaps we can let the confusion, well, confuse our ideas of who athletes are, how they act, how they feel, how others respond to them, what drives them, and what/who they desire.