Unless you’ve been living under a rock, more than likely you are aware of the Manti Te’o “catfishing” story that’s made almost every kind of headline imaginable the past couple of weeks. Just in case you crawled out from under that rock to read my blog today, let me recap: star college football player, Heisman trophy candidate and national championship contender Manti Te’o is propelled to stardom for previously mentioned accomplishments, buoyed by a compelling personal story that his grandmother and cancer-stricken girlfriend died on the same day. What’s recently been revealed is that the girlfriend never existed. He maintained a phone and internet relationship with her for months, but they never met in person, and he claims he was “catfished”-the victim of an online hoax where the victim is duped into a “relationship” with someone via internet and/or telephone who is actually pretending to be someone else. Initially, not many people believed Manti’s version of events was possible-they assumed that he was in on the hoax, creating a great story to sell himself, gain popularity, and build hype for his Heisman Trophy campaign. He always maintained, as did his university (Notre Dame) who investigated the claims, that he was a victim and was shocked to find out the girl was a fabrication.
I’ve purposefully waited to write about this dating-related news story in order to have as much information as possible and also to hear him speak on his own behalf. Personally, I didn’t find his story all that unbelievable-after all, I’ve already confessed to my fascination of the Catfish show on MTV, which shares stories like this every single week. Being an experienced online dater, I’m also not shocked that people don’t always represent themselves accurately on the internet, and I’ve seen firsthand there are a lot of crazies out there. What surprised me was the backlash against Manti. I know many athletes don’t have the best reputations for good behavior, and particularly with the timing of this story (cough*lancearmstrong*cough) maybe the general public just couldn’t believe an athlete was telling the truth. However, I saw a young man-21, 22?-raised Mormon, close to his family from a small state; coming to a big university and playing football on a national stage. He’s young-definitely young enough to be naive about others’ intentions toward him. He’s from a conservative faith (Mormon) at a conservative Catholic school- perhaps the type of person naturally inclined to be empathetic and compassionate toward a girl claiming to have a car accident and cancer, and maybe without much “dating” or relationship experience prior to coming to college (I have no idea about that, I’m speculating-he could be a total ladies man, but those stories haven’t started circulating yet). And, he was probably fairly new to all this attention. He probably enjoyed it, and he probably didn’t know how to pick his friends very well or who to trust (or not trust). We’ve seen plenty of young athletes or celebrities choose to trust the wrong people. Away from friends and family for the first time, a talented young football star thrust into the limelight-to me, it certainly seemed like plausible circumstances in which one could be vulnerable to deception. After all, everything on the internet is real.
And as Dan Slater pointed out on NPR the other morning, loneliness is a powerful affliction. Slater, you might remember, is the same writer who declared the end of monogamy and relationships as we know it a few weeks ago. He’s written a book, which I have purchased and will share my thoughts on that whenever I get around to reading it (you know, I already have a lot of options). NPR talked to him about the book, and the Manti Te’o story, but these words in particular really struck me: Loneliness is a Powerful Affliction. I realized I’m pretty lucky. Despite being single for many years, I’ve never really struggled with loneliness. I was never really bothered much by hearing about friends getting engaged or having kids or any of those other things that are supposed to send single women crying into their pillows and/or hot fudge sundaes. I mean, I’m human-every now and then, probably complimented by raging PMS hormones or something, I’d have a moment. A moment where I wondered, worried, and felt kinda lonely being a single lady. Wondered if I’d truly be happy if I lived the rest of my life as a singleton. But then I’d remember, oh yeah, I don’t hate being single, and I’d go meet a girlfriend for a margarita, you know? Maybe its because I never allowed myself to dwell on it for too long, and it just never seemed like the worst thing that could happen to me-but I’ve never worried much about whether I’ll be single and alone forever. But I have friends who definitely aren’t happy alone, and I get it-for many, loneliness is a powerful affliction. In those moments of craving connection, you are desperate not to feel so alone. Maybe you develop feelings for someone you’ve never met, because you want to feel an incredible connection. You will ignore red flags and blinking neon signs that say, “caution” because you so badly want to believe you aren’t that stupid, or naive, or alone.
I am not inclined to think Manti Te’o created this story of a fictional girlfriend with cancer who died to gain attention or boost his chances at winning the Heisman trophy. (My usual go-to, Eyes for Lies, doesn’t believe him at all, though. Hmm.) Sure, he lied/embellished stories meeting her to family, friends and the media; he later lied to keep up the story in order to avoid drawing negative attention to him and his team during the playoffs. He’s admitted that. He was embarrassed, scared, didn’t know who to trust anymore; part of the reason he lied to friends and family about the nature of the relationship was to avoid judgement and criticism. He knew that would be unavoidable once the truth came out that the girl was “alive” and really, nonexistent. He was right! The way he reacted-continuing with the story until the end of the football season-that’s believable in a young, immature college age boy. He also provided phone records that showed hours of calls to the “girl” and says that the perpetrator confessed to the hoax (I don’t think he has spoken out yet).
Was someone like Manti Te’o (star athlete, good family, popular, has everything going for him) really lonely enough to emotionally invest in an relationship with a person he’s never met, despite being surrounded by friends, teammates, coaches, family, and fans? I don’t know. Maybe-loneliness is a powerful affliction. One that we’re embarrassed to admit we have from time to time, or maybe all the time. Loneliness may have created a vulnerability for Manti to be easily hoodwinked; loneliness may have led Manti’s alleged perpetrator to trick him into a “relationship.” Assuming they weren’t in on it together, the desire to connect with another person must have been a big motivator for both parties in carrying on with the relationship for as long as it lasted.
Truth or lies, it’s quite a lesson for those of us who seek connections over the internet to be cautious and avoid becoming emotionally invested before you have had personal, face to face contact. If you’ve never met him/her, he/she is not your boyfriend/girlfriend. You are not in a relationship. If one person can’t or won’t follow up with plans to meet within one month, walk away. Don’t waste your time. A person that is serious and honest about pursuing an actual relationship with you, will make plans to meet you even if you are separated by distance. A person that is serious and honest about pursuing an actual relationship with you, will not regularly break those plans to call/text/visit you. And by all means, if you get lonely, just call me and we’ll go for a margarita, OK?
What are your thoughts about Manti’s story? Any of my readers ever been misled by someone you met on the internet, or “catfished”?