Imagine explaining to football fans of an earlier era that a prominent college linebacker had claimed to be dating a woman who turned out to be an Internet hoax. Then again, imagine explaining that a college linebacker’s romantic life had ever been a subject of significant national hype to begin with.
This year, though, Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s heartbreak over the death of his girlfriend, attributed to leukemia, became the emotional storyline of a football season that ended in a trip to the national championship game. That story came to a bizarre end this week when the website Deadspin debunked it — and the woman’s very existence — as utter fiction.
Understandably, fans have struggled to understand what role Te’o played in the hoax. Critics have hinted at a cynical plot to boost Te’o’s image. Others have speculated about a prank by one of his friends that snowballed into a falsehood broadcast to national audiences. Notre Dame athletic officials have depicted the linebacker as a sweet and trusting soul who fell victim to a sophisticated “catfishing” scheme, in which someone invented an Internet character who lured him into what he thought was a real online relationship.
But whatever the exact details, the story ought to raise questions about how sports affect young athletes. Te’o is just 22 years old, and it’s easy to imagine that, as a college football player in a culture that pampers them, he may have developed a sheltered outlook.
Sometimes lost in the debates about whether big-time college sports hurts universities is how they can hurt the players themselves. Te’o might have been an innocent dupe in this affair, or he might have been in on it. Either possibility would be a reflection of his immaturity — something that most college students get to outgrow in private. But while Te’o’s Notre Dame peers get to make their formative mistakes without the world knowing about them, the demands of college sports forces young men like him to make theirs in a harsh national spotlight.