Nonexistent girlfriend okay, nonexistent deity not so gud, akshually

The American college football player (i.e., not soccer) Manti T’eo is all over the news in the U.S.  Born in Hawaii, and of Samoan extraction, he’s now playing as a linebacker for the University of Notre Dame and is a prime candidate to go to the pros, i.e., the National Football League.

Last week T’eo became embroiled in what has turned into a scandal: this season he claimed that he had played extra aggressively because both his grandmother and girlfriend had died on the same day.  Reporters later found out that no such girlfriend existed, whereupon it was revealed that T’eo was the victim of a phone hoax perpetrated by an acquaintance, in which a woman (still unknown) would call T’eo and talk to him for hours. T’eo claims he formed an inseparable bond with the woman, and then, after faking the occurrence of a car accident that injured her, the hoaxers killed her off from leukemia, leading to her reported death, which was of course faked.  T’eo claimed that he was too embarrassed to reveal to the press that he’d never met this woman, and so pretended that she was his real girlfriend.

There are some claims that T’eo became complicit in the hoax later on.  It’s all a bit murky, but it’s sad, and I’m not quite sure why this is getting so much press (see the story and a video here).  T’eo didn’t do anything wrong except mislead reporters about whether he’d ever met his “girlfriend,” and it shouldn’t affect his prospects to play pro football.

But that’s just background.  The point of this story is an exchange about the T’eo episode that occurred on a sports radio station, and was reported to me by reader Joe in an email (reproduced here with his permission). Welcome to America!

Dear Dr. Coyne: I hope this finds you well. I’m not sure whether anyone else has reported an interesting exchange that occurred at ~3:00 a.m. EST this morning between a caller and Amy Lawrence, one of the overnight hosts on CBS Sports Radio. I heard it as I lay awake fretting over some work-related matters. I won’t get the exchange exactly correct, but the essence is a follows, in the context of Manti Te’o’s non-existent girlfriend (I actually feel sorry for the young man):

Caller: I’ll probably get cut off, but I’m calling about Manti Te’o.

Ms. Lawrence: Go ahead.

Caller: It’s interesting that Manti Te’o girlfriend doesn’t exist. He and Notre Dame keep pushing God on us after every victory, and God doesn’t exist either.

Ms. Lawrence (cutting him off): That’s it! You can’t come on this show and offend all of the listeners who believe in God!

I was too tired to get up and call, and I probably wouldn’t have made it past the screening in any case.

Ms. Lawrence seemed to have missed the point that many of us are offended by having God thrown at us in every conceivable context. It reminded me of when I lived in Boulder and Craig Morton was the Broncos’ QB [QB = quarterback]. Whenever they won, he’d thank Jesus for being there with him during the game—especially when the game was played in snow and bitter cold in Mile High Stadium I couldn’t help but think that anyone who is omnipotent would have been in Miami watching the Dolphins.

Anyway, Teo is a terrific defensive player, and a sure bet for an early selection in the pro football draft. Here are some highlights of his playing for Notre Dame (his jersey number is 5):


  1. Posted January 20, 2013 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    I feel sorry for the guy, but more so for the many people who believe in a god they are yet to see or hear from.

  2. daveau
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    The same thought had occurred to me. At least it was a real girl that called him and talked to him for hours.

    • Frank
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 7:34 am | Permalink

      The story is more complicated. T’eo willfully played up the girlfriend tragedy (how they often discussed Mormon scriptures, how she was the most beautiful girl he had ever “seen”, etc.) with reporters, and kept talking about her even after Dec. 6, when the hoaxers apparently called him and confessed. He also said it simply never occurred to him to visit her in the hospital when she “had” leukemia. And he certainly lied multiple times earlier, when he said they met in person in California and Hawaii. His motives are not clear.

      This may sound like an unfair generalization, but to me this saga is part of a Mormon syndrome – if you find yourself in the spotlight (in this case because of football prowess), use it to talk at length about your religion and use hyperbole to turn it into an inspirational story. I think the young man was to some degree both extremely gullible and deceitful, as well as a victim of his religious upbringing. When the nonexistent girlfriend died, he said what he was trained to say: that the absolutely KNEW he would see her in the afterlife. I find that both sad and amusing, and it should give pause to Mormons who frequently claim that “the spirit” tells them what to do in times of crisis or tragedy.

      • Posted January 20, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

        Helpful. This Mormon angle sheds light here, although I can imagine members of other evangelical groups behaving similarly.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 20, 2013 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

        I read that the suspicion was that all this girlfriend-drama-publicity was intended to somehow up his Heisman chances…

  3. revjimbob
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    Hate to be pedantic, but it was his grandmother, not his mother, who died.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 5:54 am | Permalink

      Fixed, thanks! But do you REALLY hate to be pedantic? 🙂

      • BigBob
        Posted January 20, 2013 at 6:19 am | Permalink

        Pedants are upholders of them standards by which we all should live.

  4. Jon
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Mr. Deity made clear his position on this matter before the 2007 Superbowl.

  5. Posted January 20, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Te’o played poorly in the Irish’s loss in the Bowl game this year, after his fictional girlfriend had “died.”

    I don’t know the facts of this bazaar situation but perhaps he derived some positive benefit from the idea of this fictional “girlfriend”…just like many believers claim benefits from their god(s).

    If humans can invent gods why not girlfriends, too?

    • Frank
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      His first name is Manti, a location in the Book of Mormon (and also a real town in Utah). So, here in Utah the cynical view is even more specific than yours: he was named after a made-up place in a made-up book, so why not a made-up girlfriend as well? The most popular NEWS outlet in Utah ran stories a while back lamenting the fact that T’eo did not go to BYU (given his ability), but then speculated that, on the other hand, it was perhaps even better that he went to a school like Notre Dame, because he could give his Mormon church an even bigger spotlight. Predictably, T’eo said all along that the Lord told him to choose Notre Dame. Now Mormons at BYU have even more reason to thank the Lord!

      • Timothy Hughbanks
        Posted January 20, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

        This is great! I was wondering about the Mormon going to a Catholic university angle as well. I just assumed that if there is a loftier motivation than religion in the USA, it has to be football.

        As for the radio caller getting cut off because he offended the religious listeners, I just wonder where the line is drawn. My guess is that is probably (?) still OK to offend to offend Scientologists but not OK to offend Mormons. My feeling is that Scientological insanity still isn’t “over the hump”, but LDS craziness is here for the long haul.

    • Pendant Pedant
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      BIZARRE situation

  6. jeannette
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Fishy story to be sure, but the media surely has bigger fish to fry.

    • Sam
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      As someone who thinks a lot of what passes for news, car crashes, bizarre video, etc., isn’t news, I do think this story warrants attention, at least equal to the attention given to Manti when all the news was positive.
      Was it news that he played so well despite losing a grandmother and girlfriend? I think so. People like their sports to come with a narrative they can get behind. So it’s certainly news that story turns out to be bunk, that there was no girlfriend.
      And it’s not like it’s either/or. It’s not like the media can’t devote a couple of minutes air time and however many column inches to this story and still report on Algeria, inauguration prep, the weather, the NFC, and other local happenings.

      • jeannette
        Posted January 20, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        My comments hardly suggest anything you said, but I guess some look for comments they can make a bigger deal than warranted. Cheers.

        • Sam
          Posted January 20, 2013 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

          I took “bigger fish to fry” to mean you didn’t think it was newsworthy. I explained why I thought it was newsworthy, and why they didn’t sacrifice space on air or in print to cover both this and the “other fish.”

          So how is that making a big deal?

          I resent your cheers because it seems sarcastic where nothing in my post was.

  7. Daryl
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    The person I feel sorry for is the imaginary girlfriend. To have never enjoyed the simple pleasures of existence must have been really awful for her.

    • Notagod
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      Is it better to have been a mor[m]on and existed or, to have not existed at all?

      Life to a mor[m]on is just a temporary chore in preparation for their non-existent reality.

  8. Matt Bowman
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    The more you know about the Manti Te’o case, the more it looks like he had to be in on it. It seems that this might have been a way to get more press in hopes of winning the Heisman Trophy.

    Gail Collins of the NYT wrote a great piece a couple of days ago.

    Collins ends with this, a real sock to Notre Dame.

    “This all occurred a couple of years after the Notre Dame team was involved in a genuine tragedy when a freshman from a neighboring girls’ college reported she had been sexually assaulted by a football player. The school did not order up an outside investigation. In fact, there appeared to be no investigation at all. After a period of dead silence in which she received a threatening text from another player, the girl died from an overdose of medication. Nothing else happened. Writing this week in The Washington Post, Melinda Henneberger, a Notre Dame graduate, noted that ‘my alma mater held the kind of emotional news conference for the fake dead girl they never held for the real one, Lizzy Seeberg.'”

    • Posted January 20, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      America’s obsession and consequential leniency with the football cult is extremely dismaying.

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, I loved that commentary. Glad you thought to post it–go Gail!

  9. Sam
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    I don’t know, I feel like there should be a punishment for misleading people for gain, which he did whether in on the hoax or not. At no point did he ever, in speaking about his beloved, let on that he never met her, and only knew her online and on the telephone (maybe — I have a hard time swallowing the perpetrator of the hoax would be a girlfriend for a full year, giving all kinds of homilies, ‘Be humble, Manti. Remember He who gave you those gifts.’
    What was his gain? He knew this only improved his chances for the NFL. All the media attention and what-not. At any point had he ever said, ‘The weird thing is, I’m so inspired by and in love with this person, and yet we’ve never met,’ alarm bells would have sounded and the feel-good story would turn into the feel-strange story it has become.

    • Frank
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Assuming he didn’t start the hoax, I have heard two cynical reasons why he kept it going. First, the attention might increase his Heisman trophy chances. Second, he needed a girlfriend in his life because of the stigma of being a gay Mormon. I don’t necessarily believe either, in part because it is clear that he was raised to be extremely gullible.

  10. Dean Thoren
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink


    Have you seen today’s CNN articles regarding using the bible at Inauguration Day?

  11. steve oberski
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I’ve recently started to receive EMAILs from russian brides who I am sure would be very interested in meeting Mr. T’eo.

  12. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    I guess (taking the charitable view) that maybe he gradually slid into going along with it. That is, he probably believed in her at first, then later (if he had doubts) he may not have wished to voice them to her in case she was genuine and he blew his chances, and then, by the time he was sure she didn’t exist, maybe the story of his GF was out in public and he found it easier to maintain the story than to look an idiot by admitting to the hoax. Something like that, anyway.

    Unlike Mr Armstrong, he doesn’t seem to have hurt anyone but himself.

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    I’ve tried to stay away from this story until coming across it in this post. Now that I’ve read up on it a bit, it seems to touch upon some of what’s repugnant in our society — such as the tabloidization of the mainstream media; the jock-sniffing culture that pervades big-time college athletics; the economic exploitation of the professional athletes fronting as bogus university students; and, well, Notre Dame football, of course.

    On the plus side, it’s helped me figure out where all those vowels missing from the Polish and Slovak names (the ones like “Grbwski” and “Hrbic”) from the neighborhood I grew up in disappeared to: They’re on the lam in the warmer climes of Hawaii, lounging around the interior syllables of all those Samoan and Polynesian names (the ones like “Vaosa” and “Tuiasosopo”).

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for my laugh of the evening. 😀

      Esp., ” . . . and, well, Notre Dame football. . .”

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted January 21, 2013 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

        Rudy” and “Knute Rockne, All-American” are no doubt playing on a looped, never-ending double-feature at Hell’s Cineplex — on every screen in the theater.

        • Diane G.
          Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:10 am | Permalink


          (Gee, where was God two weeks ago?)

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