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Dick Harmon: Saga of Manti Te'o keeps burning on daily fuel

Published: Friday, Jan. 25 2013 4:15 p.m. MST

In a photo provided by ESPN, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o pauses during an interview with ESPN on Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, in Bradenton, Fla.

Ryan Jones, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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It is a story like a ball of yarn whose tail unravels a foot or two every day. It’s a story with the legs of a centipede that crawled out of Chernobyl.

Manti Te’o, willingly or unwillingly, has stepped on a treadmill a half-mile wide that’s stuck on full speed and he can’t reach the wall plug.

I feel sorry for the Notre Dame star, because this is one sports story that will never go away. It will follow him for the rest of his life. It should not define him, but it will trail him. It has easily become one of the biggest sports stories of the decade, and that’s pretty heavy for a 21-year-old.

Some say this story may overtake three of the biggest domestic sports stories of the past four years: Tiger Woods’ fall from grace; the cheating of Lance Armstrong; and the twisted life of Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky.

I don’t know. But it is up there.

Unlike those other stories, this fake girlfriend hoax doesn’t appear to have broken any laws or marriage vows. But, almost worse, it piques the engine of tabloid-ism, the nature of humankind to be curiously fascinated with car wrecks, lost fortunes and famous people who are in pain.

Te’o’s girlfriend, the one America was led to believe died of leukemia six hours after his grandmother died, the week of a big Notre Dame game, was fake. Lennay Kekua never existed. But then the fake dead Kekua called Te’o up in December and said she never died in September.

A young woman, Diane O’Meara, whose photo was used by the media and Te’o to illustrate a death that never happened, stepped forward and claimed she’s never met the football player, that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a high school classmate, confessed to using it without permission from her Facebook account.

Recorded voice mail messages and unverified AT&T spreadsheets depicting what are supposed to be phone records show a thousand calls lasting 500 hours between Te’o and a number purported to be used by the fake Kekua. This is what Te’o has claimed happened.

Because this story involves iconic Notre Dame, one its biggest stars, the duping of the U.S. industrialized sports complex — including giant ESPN’s “waiting on the story” until after it aired the BCS championship game — it is a big drama phenomenon.

Hollywood writers could not create a better drama script.

It’s a reality show on steroids. It’s gone beyond sports cable news and pages. It has drawn in worldwide news organizations and become part of the diet of CNN, Fox News, ABC, NBC, CBS and all the rest of the TV talking heads who can’t let it go.

It stays alive because some of the nation’s top sports writers, including those at Sports Illustrated and The New York Times, got taken. They scrambled to recover by publishing their sacred notes and Te’o recordings to the public word for word to show how they missed. It only spread tasty icing on the cookies.

It stays alive because, almost daily, some other tidbit pops up.

Days after ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap gets a sit-down with Te’o and Katie Couric scores an interview with the Notre Dame star and his parents explaining how the mastermind of the hoax, Tuiasosopo, fooled Te’o, Tuiasosopo’s lawyer told the world the voice of his fake girlfriend is actually a male, Tuiasosopo himself.

Producers at Good Morning America hired four voice experts who all say the voice on the phone messages is female, not male.

Then, as if on cue, the next day, The New York Post reported that Tuiasosopo’s relatives claim Ronaiah Tuiasosopo’s female cousin, Tino Tuiasosopo, of American Samoa, is the actual girl who has been talking to Te’o on the phone every single night for years.

Is Te’o culpable? Is he totally innocent, the victim of a cruel hoax? As he told Couric, he admits he was “not forthcoming” enough at critical times as this story of a fake girl friend’s death simply spun out of his control.

What’s next? We have only to wait, it seems.

But this entire story underscores the complex holes all of us can dig when we deal in duplicity. It is the act of seeming rather than being, pretending one identity while living another. At times, most of us face situations where we choose to step on this slope.

Boy, are we better off if we avoid it. Ask Armstrong, Woods and Sandusky.

Tuiasosopo shouldn’t have run a scam. Te’o shouldn’t have trusted a voice over a real person he’d seen with his own eyes, and said otherwise. The media shouldn’t have been as enthralled with the dramatic story and accepted it as truth when they couldn’t find an obituary or other evidence Kekua existed. ESPN editors should have reported what they knew before the website Deadspin did it for them.

But nobody’s perfect.

And that’s why these stories become headlines.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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