For me, the story of Manti Te'o pushed from the surreal to the absurd last Saturday. I was driving my car, listening to a sports radio show, which was my own mistake—I always have such naive hope there will be a meaningful conversation, but after a while, it inevitably begins to sound like a donkey trapped under a gate. The hosts were talking about the strange particulars of Te'o saga—how the Notre Dame linebacker had seemingly been hoaxed into falling in love with a woman he'd corresponded with via phone—and at some point, one of the hosts said, with great assurance, "I could never fall in love with someone I never met."
I nearly swerved the car into a hydrant. Because of all the truths and semi-truths exposed in this bizarre public unraveling, what the story of Manti Te'o seemed to prove the most was that people are inclined to love what they don't truly know. Never fall for someone you've never met? You have got to be kidding me. That leap is the essence of big-time sports fandom—emotional attachment to strangers wearing familiar uniforms. Sports fans fall in love with people and narratives they don't truly know, understand, or investigate, all the time, to the point that the undressing of sports fables has become a national pastime. Just last week, Oprah Winfrey had confirmed the epic lies of Lance Armstrong on national TV.
This human tendency toward believing is what allows not-so-true tales like Armstrong's and Te'o's to flourish. The basics of Teo's story now seem so overreaching in retrospect—an elite college football player, inspired by a girlfriend rendered comatose by a car accident, only to awaken later and perish from leukemia—it sounds cooked up after 20 Red Bulls in the writers room of General Hospital. But the narrative went down easy. We're conditioned to accept the unbelievable, especially when that unbelievable is presented as a warm back story to a verifiable truth, like Teo's performance on the field, which was extraordinary and real.