Jennifer Xu: Gone (cat)fishing

By Jennifer Xu, Columnist
Published January 24, 2013

By now you’ve likely familiarized yourself with the Manti Te’o debacle. The cuckolded football star; the girlfriend who died, then didn’t die, of cancer; the lonely Christian band singer; the lazy sports magazine fact checkers. Clustering around like bees protecting their queen, the media outlets do their best to make appropriate reparations. Sorry, they buzz. We are so, so sorry.

“No, never,” Te'o said when asked if he played any part in the ruse. University of Notre Dame, doing what all athletic departments do when backed into a corner, rallied behind its star player with ferocious conviction, releasing a statement claiming that “this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.”

Then, faster than you could say “Lennay Kekua,” Te’o changed his tune. In an exclusive interview with Katie Couric on Thursday, he admitted that, whoops, he knew his girlfriend hadn’t passed away when he received a phone call from a stranger purporting to be her in early December. And yet, he still grieved for her “death” on national television two days later.

“You stuck to the script. And you knew that something was amiss, Manti,” Couric said, sternly.

“Katie, put yourself in my situation,” Te’o pleaded. “I, my whole world told me that she died on Sept. 12. Everybody knew that. This girl, who I committed myself to, died on Sept. 12.”

Te’o is better on the field than under the muted lighting of a network soundstage. Watching him gracefully sack opponents on the 20-yard line, his face shielded by his gold helmet, there’s something vulnerable about him — almost poetic. You want to root for this guy; this sweaty, soft-hearted hunk of a hero. In interviews, he’s fine — calm, enunciates well — but is still somehow disingenuous and unreadable.

Ever since the sad, strange narrative exploded on Deadspin a little more than a week ago, ESPN has been covering the aftermath in careful, pointillist detail. Was Te’o complicit in the hoax or a victim of it? Experts dish up new theories by the hour, reading his eyebrows, the timestamps of his cell phone calls, a receipt from 1-800-FLOWERS and anything else they can grasp onto that would indict or salvage the hapless football player.

What’s struck me most about the coverage of the Te’o storyline is the witch-hunt-like, us-versus-them mentality writers have taken on. Te’o is either vilified as a publicity-seeking faker or a sweet, spotless fool, with no in-between. The audience, for its part, has eaten it up with the breathless excitement of a criminal wiretap. But, why all the fascination? Why do we feel personally offended that a girl we never knew didn’t die of cancer and that a guy we’ve only seen on the Big Ten Network might have a fetish for whispering sweet nothings to a wall of static?

The kicker is that Nev Schulman, creator of the film “Catfish” and the MTV show of the same name, has been crowned the authority on all things Internet hoax, oft sought-after in interviews to arbitrate Te’o’s innocence. Never mind that Schulman’s own “discovery” that the girl he was so in love with who ended up being a lonely, overweight lady from rural Michigan had its own whiffs of deceit. It seems suspicious that this twenty-something Jewish boy in skinny jeans could have been hoodwinked by a woman two times his senior, and that the whole endeavor wasn’t really just an excuse to cash out and become famous — that the making of “Catfish” wasn’t a kind of catfish in itself.

In my humble, non-evidentiary opinion, Te’o probably had some idea of what was going on — maybe not at the beginning, but certainly at the very end. Why am I so sure?

Because we all do it: we all catfish. Ever since our lives migrated online, there’s been this American Dream-like possibility of self-constructing how the world should see us. We throw fabulist, half-true-half-not tales of our lives into cybersphere, carefully editing and tagging our photos to produce the lives we’d like to have. We’re not so different from Te’o, who catfished a beautiful Stanford student with a “warm smile and soulful eyes,” or from Sports Illustrated, who catfished a great, Greek epic in its fawning October profile of Te’o, titled “The Full Manti.” This mutual exchange of fact and fiction is part of an invisible contract we sign when we power up our laptops and log onto Facebook. The story of the fallen Heisman contender resonates because we have all been Manti Te’o. We’ve been both versions of him: the cuckoldee and the cuckolder.

But what happens when the contract breaks, as Te’o’s has? Then the shimmering versions of the selves we’d like to be dissolve like Pepto-Bismol tablets. No, that can’t be what I really look like. Oh, but it is.

Jennifer Xu can be reached at