Of all the questions to come out of the mind-bendingly surreal story about Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend, the most interesting one to me is: Did Notre Dame leaders have a responsibility to share publicly what they knew earlier than they did?
In case you’re behind on this stranger-than-fiction story, Manti Te’o was yet another chapter in the Notre Dame football legend. The senior linebacker became a media darling not only for his on-field talent, but for the off-field narrative that he supposedly lost his girlfriend on the same day this fall that his grandmother died. The sports media loved the tragic human-interest angle, playing it up all season as Te’o became a Heisman Trophy candidate and Notre Dame became a national championship contender.
Then last Wednesday, Deadspin.com published a blockbuster story reporting that Te’o’s girlfriend never existed. Sports and pop culture commentators reacted immediately with questions: Could Te’o have been in on the story? (He told ESPN he wasn’t, and will sit for an interview with Katie Couric that airs Thursday.) Why is a fake tragedy getting more attention than a real one did? (The Post’s Melinda Henneberger has an incisive take on another story questioning the leadership of Notre Dame.) And what does this all have to do with “Love Story,” Knute Rockne and the myth of Icarus? (Thank you, Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman.)
But the most compelling question, I think, is how well Notre Dame responded, especially after a detailed timeline of the university’s involvement was reported over the weekend in the South Bend Tribune. Te’o shared the news with the university on Dec. 26, and on Dec. 29 Notre Dame decided to pursue an investigation. On Jan. 2, the university hired a private investigation firm, then just two days later the investigation ended, reports the Tribune, even though it “did not interview Te’o or his family, nor did anyone attempt to contact [the primary suspect of the hoax] or any of his relatives.” The national championship game was played on Jan. 7, with Notre Dame getting crushed by Alabama, 42-14.
Notre Dame’s reasoning for not going public earlier, according to the Tribune, was that Te’o was the victim, not the university. University officials told the newspaper that it wanted to respect Te’o’s privacy, and had no evidence of NCAA rule violations, extortion, gambling or other efforts to swing the outcome of the Jan. 7 game. While some Notre Dame officials reportedly argued for immediate disclosure before the bowl game, a spokesperson told the Tribune that sharing the hoax then wouldn’t be in the best interest of the teams or individuals. “There was kind of a realization that this would be a circus. It would be unfair to Alabama, it would be unfair to all the other players not involved,” the official told the Tribune, noting that “we never intended that it would stay private.”
I get that this was not a simple issue. It’s true that the story had the potential to highly embarrass Te’o over an intimately personal matter, though that was bound to happen no matter when the story came out. And yes, we’re not talking about a student who took performance-enhancing drugs or traded his football jerseys for discounted tattoos. We’re talking about a student who claims to have been duped in an elaborate online hoax.
Still, while Notre Dame may not have been a direct victim, it was certainly a beneficiary. The story of the star linebacker who was motivated by a girlfriend’s tragic death added to positive media coverage of Notre Dame’s team. It became part of the narrative that fueled Te’o’s Heisman candidacy. Had the news come out before the national title game, Notre Dame’s moment in the sun surely would have been overshadowed by one of the most bizarre sports stories of the year.
Who knows how much that played a role in the university’s decision not to share what it knew before the bowl game. But in the words of sports writer Paul Doyle, “this much is clear: Notre Dame hasn’t distinguished itself.” Crisis management 101 tells us it’s always good to be ahead of a story rather than behind it. By letting the media reveal the news first, Notre Dame prompted more skepticism and more questions about its player and its program than ever would have happened if it had revealed this strange story first. Transparency can be painful, but in the long run it usually helps the people or institutions involved much more than holding back does.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.