Tuesday, January 22, 2013

“Manti Te’o – A Morality Tale?”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Manti Te’o – A Morality Tale?”
January 22, 2013

“Curioser and curioser,” cried Alice in Lewis Carroll’s eponymous story, as she telescoped into a much larger version of herself. And so goes the story of Manti Te’o and his virtual girlfriend, Lennay Kekua. She conveniently “died” on the same day in September as did Mr. Te’o’s real grandmother, providing an extra sentiment to the Michigan game, a game won by the Irish 13-6.

My first reaction, upon hearing of the sorry episode of Manti Te’o, was to think of the young boy who allegedly called out to Joe Jackson, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” “Shoeless Joe” Jackson of the Chicago White Sox had just left the courthouse in Chicago where he was standing trial in 1921, along with eight others, accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. When, a few weeks ago, I had asked my grandchildren for examples of heroes, one eleven-year old mentioned Manti. Te’o. At any age, learning that one’s heroes are not perfect is a difficult lesson to digest.

At this point, we do not know if Manti Te’o was part of a conspiracy to gin up sympathy and support to help in the voting for the Heisman, or whether he was the victim of a dastardly hoax. I truly hope (and think) it was the latter. But the history of using tragic and early deaths to motivate athletes is a long and storied one. Allegedly, long-time Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne, when having a rare bad year in 1928, invoked the name of former player George Gipp who was tragically dying. The story is that on his death bed and just prior to the West Point game, Gipp whispered to Rockne, “Win just one for the Gipper.” They did. The 1973 movie “Bang the Drum Slowly” tells the story of two professional baseball players who were best friends, Henry Wiggin and Bruce Pearson. Pearson, a mediocre catcher at best, had just learned he has Hodgkin’s disease. He pledges Wiggin to silence, but because Pearson is such a bad player and Wiggin insists on using him as his catcher, the team begins losing games. Eventually Wiggin blurts out the truth. The team’s fortunes change. They go on to the World Series. Pearson dies. The audience weeps, and box office receipts soar.

Most people my age find it implausible, that anyone could have a virtual relationship. But we live in a different time. Social networking and internet dating have become commonplace. For an individual like Manti Te’o, who was known as being somewhat naive and was obviously time constrained, it is understandable how he might have been sucked into a phony relationship. Mr. Te’o, allegedly, was an individual who believed the best about everyone, but apparently with more than a touch of gullibility. While it may sound supercilious, he was at Notre Dame because of his prowess on the football field, not because of the intellect he brought to the classroom. He majored in graphic design, not nuclear physics.

It is also possible that the entire episode was a concoction of Notre Dame’s public relation’s department, but I find that hard to believe. The University has a world-wide reputation and would not be so short-sighted as to put their University at risk. It seems most likely that this was a hoax perpetrated on a young man by immature miscreants who perhaps never realized the harm they were doing. Once begun, it became hard to stop; thus the death of Lennay became necessary. Timing her death to coincide with that of his grandmother was an act of treachery that possibly will reach deep into the psyche of Manti Te’o, hopefully with no tragic results.

Adding fuel to the story is a media that provides perpetrators celebratory status. Public confessions to Oprah Winfrey or Katie Couric serve both them and their guests: The worse the behavior of the accused, the larger the audience. Liars and cheats like Lance Armstrong can confess before an audience of millions in hopes for redemption, and if not redemption then remuneration. The possibility of personally making millions of dollars helps absolve thwarted careers and assuage what crocodile tears may be shed. In a simpler day such opportunities were unheard of. “Shoeless Joe” Jackson’s last few years were spent in Greenville, SC where he operated a dry cleaner and liquor store. In those days, heroes who strayed paid for their sins. Today, they are more inclined to use their notoriety to add to their wealth.

But to compare the deliberate and heinous lies of Lance Armstrong to the misguided indiscretions of Monti Te’o, assuming he is guilty, is like comparing Bernie Madoff to the guy who robs the local 7-Eleven. Both were wrong, but one did infinitely more damage and did so for a decade. Mr. Armstrong condemned his competitors, while he maintained a veneer of respectability for himself. Even in apology, Mr. Armstrong could not help himself, in that he inferred he was not alone in using drugs; so was not solely responsible – that others were equally guilty. Will the non-existence of Lennay hurt Mr. Te’o’s chances at the NFL draft? No one knows, but one would suspect it shall. The cause, as I wrote earlier, had to stem from one of three possibilities: a deliberate act on the part of Mr. Te’o to generate publicity; a fabrication on the part of the University, with the same goal of eliciting sympathy (the least likely), or (in my opinion, the most likely) a hoax that preyed on the naïveté of a gullible young man.

Nevertheless, and no matter who bears responsibility, the actions of both Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Te’o reflect a decline in civil behavior. The actions of both indicate a failure of our society to teach the difference between right and wrong. The episode speaks volumes about our press, which is more interested in providing entertainment than hard news. Consider, for instance, why did not one reporter seek an obituary for Ms. Kekua in September? As Alice said, the episode becomes “curioser and curioser.”

In every age there have been examples of incivility. Society will never be 100% just, moral or fair. But our current age has seen an unprecedented decline in civil behavior. The “Golden Rule” is passé. Moral certitude has been consigned to the dustbin of history. Relativism rules. Who is responsible? We all have been. In a world in which political correctness and moral relativism trump basic rules of right and wrong, we cannot expect the moral norms of yesteryear to triumph. Is it possible to return to a more civilized society? Perhaps, but change will have to begin with family and be endorsed by our cultural and political leaders. For example, there is little question that children brought up in single-parent households have a more difficult time than those raised in traditional two-parent family structures. If the First Lady were to use her office to focus on the importance of marriage and traditional family values in raising children; people’s concepts toward families might change. Gay rights and obesity are issues deserving support, but pale in importance when compared to the role of the family. Dysfunctional families are a cause of much of society’s troubles, especially in African-American households where 70% of babies are born out of wedlock. If there is a moral to the unfortunate tale of Manti Te’o, it is that when we look for a cause we find it is us, explicitly or implicitly, overtly or covertly.

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