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Manti Te’o: How American culture helped create the biggest hoax in sports history

Michael Jordan is a gambling degenerate.

Walter Payton was a philanderer.

Whether you choose to acknowledge these statements as factual is your own decision.  Of course these are two of the most highly regarded professional athletes in history — both on and off their respective playing surfaces — but the idea of either superstar being fallible is something many sports fans and members of the media simply fail to recognize.

The same can be said about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o.

For the better part of the 2012 college football season, Te’o played the role of hero to near perfection.  On the field, Te’o was the driving force for the resurgence of one of the nation’s most popular programs.  He led the Fighting Irish to a perfect regular season record and bolstered consideration that his team’s defensive unit may have been one of the country’s finest.

Off the field, Te’o was more than any journalist could ask for.  Ripe with stories of heartbreak and perseverance, the national media made Te’o one of America’s most significant and beloved athletes.  Te’o was regarded as one of the nation’s most inspirational sportsmen after reports broke that he’d lost not only his grandmother to cancer in the past year, but also his longtime girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, to leukemia during this past season.  As a result of extensive media exposure, Te’o became a household name and an idolized figure in sports culture.

And now we’ve found out much of our adoration was created through deception.

It shouldn’t be all that surprising, though, to hear that the supposed relationship between Te’o and Kekua was fictional.  When Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick announced Te’o revealed to school authorities nearly three weeks ago that he’d been the victim of a hoax, sports media reached hysteria.  The idea that a famous athlete could cast such an elaborate lie as truth seemed preposterous to many.  Even those who’d extensively interviewed Te’o over the course of last season were dumfounded by the news.

But in a world that sways heavily toward the foundation of public relations rather than truth, should it really come as much surprise that someone so close to the pinnacle of stardom would do something so careless and cunning to further his image and career?

For years sports fans have read stories or watched programs depicting athletes as superhuman beings.  We watch them ascend through the ranks of society on the wings of their God-given abilities, and because they’re so graceful and captivating, we often assume their character is as flawless as their jump shot.  From as early as high school, athletes are depicted as heroes, responsible for establishing a form of pride for the towns, cities and countries we call home.  Parents and children alike look upon athletes as role models — the children longing to achieve similar acclaim when they reach adulthood, the parents wishing the same for their kids.

With such emphasis placed on athletics, it’s only natural our culture has such a longing for a story like that of Manti Te’o's.  His professed story was one that proved the value of perseverance; an affirmation to the belief that “if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”  Te’o's purported journey, which began with the losses of a grandmother and model-esque sweetheart and ended in Heisman Trophy consideration, had all the makings of a Disney film, if not a tale to be handed down through generations.

We wanted so badly for Te’o's story to be true that we lost all sense of skepticism.

Sure, once this story completely unravels, Manti Te’o will most likely be viewed as the main perpetrator of this extensive hoax.  There’s no valid excuse for creating an elaborate story about a  fictional girlfriend with a terminal disease.  Most likely Te’o concocted this blend of sorrow and triumph to thrust his image to the forefront of college football and further his impending professional career.  We’ll know soon enough.

In the end, though, much of the blame can be placed on those of us who are mere spectators of collegiate and professional sports.  Fans and media alike have helped cultivate the mentality of athletes like Te’o, as we’ve all done our fair share of iconizing athletes through the years.  We’ve done such a fine job of it that professional athletes are among the highest compensated people in our nation.  We spend absurd amounts of money on products bearing their likenesses, and Madison Avenue consistently employs them to help guide us toward specific wares we’d otherwise make shrewd, educated decisions about.

Essentially, our culture revolves largely around the lives of these so-called heroes, and we like it that way.

You can blame Te’o all you want for his ruse on the American public.  Just remember we were the ones that place a premium on the fortune and fame he so desperately desired.

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