“It never really crossed my mind”: Understanding Te’o’s Psychology

The singular reason for my continued doubt about Manti Te’o’s version of events is that I cannot fathom his mental state that would have led him to be duped. For those readers unaware, Mr. Te’o was a Notre Dame football player who told reporters that his grandmother and girlfriend passed away within hours of each other in September 2012; last week, it was revealed that Mr. Te’o’s grandmother did indeed die, but that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, did not die because she never existed. Mr. Te’o claimed that he had been fooled in a cruel hoax, that he had lied to the media and to his parents to indicate he had met this woman, and that he was completely uninvolved in the hoax.

How can a person get fooled like that? In the beginning, for a naïve and highly religious young man, who may have been interested in dating someone of his own ethnicity, it isn’t hard to imagine him starting a friendship with an attractive young woman online. Importantly, they shared the same ethnic heritage and strong religious beliefs. Here’s what Mr. Te’o told ESPN’s Jeremy Schapp about how they began communicating:

It was Facebook — she friend requested me on Facebook the winter of my freshman year at Notre Dame. And I introduced myself through message via Facebook. I just — simple, I’m Manti. I saw you friend requested me, feel free to talk. Just simple, general introductions. And we just got to know each other just as acquaintances. It was nothing big, nothing spectacular, nothing greater than that.

And what people don’t realize is it ended. My relationship with Lennay wasn’t a four-year relationship. There were blocks and times and periods in which we would talk and then it would end. She would go her way and I would go my way. And then months would go by and out of the blue she’d call me or she’d text me say: How are you doing? And we’d talk for a period of time again. And she would leave to Europe. And all of a sudden things would stop again. And I would go my way again and she would go her way.

Many people have begun friendships online. This has happened to me. A person commented on my blog in a post about the iPad. We begun communicating periodically through email and have subsequently met twice–once in Madison and once in Washington D.C. While this example does not end the same way as Mr. Te’o’s girlfriend, it started similarly. I never doubted that this person was real, even though he could have been completely fictional. In short, it isn’t hard for me to imagine Mr. Te’o believing he was actually friends with this person and that she really existed, even though she was completely fake.

Next, their relationship turns toward the romantic. Accounts differ here. In an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel, Mr. Te’o says the two officially entered into a romantic relationship on October 15, 2011. In the interview with Mr. Schapp linked above, he says this.

We spoke on the phone and talked on the phone, texted. But it’s always as acquaintances, as friends. And then she contacted me that Purdue game and she just said “Hey, how are you doing? I’m going through some hard times with my boyfriend” — at the time she had a boyfriend at the time — “and just want you to be there for me, just be my friend.” I said, “Sure, I’ll be here for you.”

And eventually we just kept talking and kept talking and kept talking. Everything kind of changed a little when her dad passed away. She told me her dad passed away, and I was there. I was just being that shoulder to cry on. And I kind of just naturally cared for the person.

And so our relationship kind of took another level. But not the kind of exclusive level yet. I was trying to get to know her and get to know a whole bunch of other people.

Which account should be believed? Psychologically, it is easier to imagine Mr. Te’o entering into a non-exclusive romantic relationship with Ms. Kekua, rather than an exclusive one, because (as Mr. Te’o says) he was trying to get to know several women at this time. This simply means that Mr. Te’o would engage in romantically-oriented conversations with Ms. Kekua. This is understandable too, because it sounds like online flirting. Many single people (and probably committed people too) do this over websites like Facebook and texts because it is easy and fun. If the story ended here–Manti Te’o reveals he flirted through text messages with a woman who didn’t exist–then there would be no story.

Unfortunately for Mr. Te’o, the story continues on and becomes harder to understand. Mr. Te’o became more committed to contact with Ms. Kekua after a man Mr. Te’o believed to be her brother called him with bad news. The following is from the Mr. Schapp’s interview.

[Everything] changed April 28th. I got a phone call from her brother Noa (Kainoa) that she had got in the car accident.

[He said] “Bro call me back, Lennay got in a car accident. Need to you call me back.” So I did. I eventually found out that she was in a coma and she was in a coma for quite some time, a couple of weeks. And I would talk to — I would ask to talk to her, and the only communication I had was through Kainoa, her brother, and he used her phone. And he would put me supposedly right next to her mouth and I could hear the ventilator going. And she would be breathing. And she would quick — they said every time I was on the phone, they would tell me the nurse noticed that whoever was on the phone with her, she must have recognized the voice because she would start breathing quicker and I could hear on the phone.

It isn’t hard to understand how Mr. Te’o could believe that a woman he knew from the internet had been in a car accident. And he had talked with her brother before–“[While] she was in New Zealand, […] she said, “Hey, Noa’s here; he wants to say hi.” He introduced himself to me. […] That was the only communication with Noa until April 28th.”–so this wasn’t a totally new person he was talking to. People do get into car accidents, including friends of ours, so that this had happened to Ms. Kekua is not a stretch of the imagination or leap of faith.

This is the last incident that I can fathom, however. After this, two things happen. First, this seems to be the time that the two enter into a relationship that seems more exclusive. Mr. Te’o must have felt more committed to her if A) we are to believe his story and B) he called her his girlfriend. Second, Mr. Te’o makes a strange decision for a boyfriend. Mr. Schapp asked Mr. Te’o why he didn’t try to go see her while she was in the hospital following the car accident. Here is Mr. Te’o’s response:

It never really crossed my mind. I don’t know. I was in school. I was finishing up my year and I was going home. It was towards the end of my junior year. End of my junior year, and I was about to go home. When I decided to go home, the day that I decided to — the day I left to go home — they called me and said that that was the same day that they were going to pull the plug. And so it intensifies the whole thing. I’m on the plane. I figured they’re about to pull the plug on someone.

First, I cannot understand how visiting her wouldn’t have crossed his mind. Second, I cannot understand why Mr. Te’o decides to share this information about Ms. Kekua’s family preparing to take her off life-support. It doesn’t fit the context of the question, and if anything, it would seem likely to strengthen his resolve to see her. Mr. Schapp clearly had the same concerns and he tried next to get Mr. Te’o to clarify the nature of their relationship.

JEREMY SCHAAP: At this point, how would you describe the depth of your relationship with her?

MANTI TE’O: It naturally kind of just took a whole different level.

JEREMY SCHAAP: But I mean before this, before the car crash.

MANTI TE’O: Before the car crash, it was — we were talking. I was talking to her. I was talking to other girls. Just trying to get to know people. I was a college player, just trying to get a feel of who was who.

JEREMY SCHAAP: There was a lot of girls.

MANTI TE’O: There were a lot of girls. Not a lot. A couple.

JEREMY SCHAAP: So she was not at this point. You hear about the car accident. She’s in the coma. And the relationship gets deeper why?

MANTI TE’O: All my focus went just to her, in caring for her. Making sure she was OK. Whenever you feel that you’re about to lose somebody, you know, reality kicks in, and it’s like, OK, I’m going to be here for her, take care of her. And so my focus turned straight to Lennay.

JEREMY SCHAAP: You said it occurred to you never to go see her. Is that because you never saw her, at that time? It never occurred to go see her?

MANTI TE’O: I was in school. I was in the middle of finals. I was going home. And I was going to try … . So the flight home was from Chicago to San Diego; we had a long layover in San Diego. We planned she was going to come pick me and my best friend Robby in San Diego, cruise around. She had to back off. We had a flight from San Diego to L.A. and L.A. to home [Hawaii]. So that was the plan. I wasn’t going to go see her. She was going to come see me in San Diego and then the accident happened.

Mr. Te’o claims that he was planning to see her, but when the accident happened, it derailed those plans. From then on, though he could have been flying in and out of Los Angeles airport when going between school and home, he never made plans to see her. His statements to Mr. Thamel suggest she was in the hospital for two months after the April 28 accident. Then she was diagnosed with leukemia and died on Sept. 11. In that four and a half month period, mostly during his summer break, he never once went to see her. I cannot understand the psychology of someone who would undertake these actions and represent the relationship as Mr. Te’o has.

What conclusions can we draw? There are two that I believe are psychologically comprehendible. The first possibility is that Mr. Te’o severely overstated his relationship with Ms. Kekua because of the rewards it provided to him. He enjoyed calling her his girlfriend because he could show others her picture and talk about her. He may have also felt like a caring person because she wanted to talk to him so frequently. The fact that they never met was no obstacle because Mr. Te’o was very willing to lie to others (including his parents) and say that they had. It is possible that the pace and extent of these lies increased after the media learned that she had died. That point is hardly the time to back off and say she didn’t mean that much to her; doing that would have led to him being vilified by the media and scrutinized by his coaches and teammates.

The second possibility is that Mr. Te’o was involved in the hoax at some point. He may have initially been fooled but later learned the truth and decided to continue the hoax. Why continue it? Doing so would provide the same rewards discussed above, and ending the relationship with her death gave Mr. Te’o a lot of media attention that helped raise his national profile. This was especially important because it wasn’t clear how well Notre Dame would do in the upcoming season. Few predicted that the team would be unbeaten and would make it to the National Championship game. Garnering media attention was thus key for Mr. Te’o’s draft position.

In either case, Mr. Te’o deserves intense scrutiny from NFL teams. Whether he was duped or not, it is true (by Mr. Te’o’s own admission) that he lied to others about Ms. Kekua. Whether he was duped or not, he has failed to provide a complete and coherent timeline of events. Whether he was duped or not, he showed exceptionally poor judgment. And whether he was duped or not, he has been unwilling to take responsibility for his own role in this mess.

So what is the truth about Mr. Te’o? That is a question you will have to answer for yourself. While I cannot see myself both considering someone my girlfriend and not thinking that I should see her in the hospital, perhaps others can imagine that situation for themselves. The truth will likely always remain murky here, because few seem willing to ask for key corroborating evidence, and Mr. Te’o has not yet provided it. Phone records and admissions of guilt from the hoaxers are a good start, but it is likely that we will never know the whole story.

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