Student Development and Manti Te’o

If you didn’t know the name Manti Te’o, defensive back for Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish football squad, you probably do now. If you still don’t know, then you’re very adept at escaping what has become one of the most talked-about yet inconsequential stories in the news today (next to Beyoncé’s lip sync of the National Anthem at the Presidential Inauguration). To sum it up, someone (or a group of people) concocted an online personality who later acquired a voice. This fictional persona became the love interest of Manti Te’o for several months and once he was quite thoroughly in love with her, the young woman was “killed” and Te’o was left to mourn her death (and move on to a new girlfriend in the interim) until he got a phone call 3 months later saying that she was still alive. After the BCS National Championship Game was played against Alabama, it came out (thanks to DeadSpin) publicly that the woman never existed. Since then, speculation has swirled about whether Te’o was in on the fraud – because surely no one could be that naive, even a 20-year-old. Te’o has done an audio interview with ESPN and apparently has recorded a video interview with his father in front of Katie Couric (my, how far you’ve fallen, sister). It’s one of the most talked about stories in sports, nearly eclipsing even Lance Armstrong’s admission to Oprah Winfrey that he used PEDs. [Lance was in ESPN news headlines for about 4 days; Manti has been on ESPN every day for about 2 weeks now.]

Notre Dame’s athletic director immediately came out in defense of Manti Te’o as soon as DeadSpin’s allegations became public. Indeed, Te’o has been defended as the victim of a cruel hoax. Meanwhile, sportscasters seem divided on the issue of whether Te’o was complicit in the hoax, especially since he knowingly continued to answer questions about this fictional girlfriend’s death even after receiving a call that she was alive and consequently doubting himself what the heck was going on.  Of great interest to me was the Sunday conversation this past weekend among ESPN’s crew that does the network’s pre-game coverage. These 5 men, all former players and coaches, who agree about little were all in agreement that they would rather that Te’o – who is currently in Florida preparing for the NFL Draft – be a party to the hoax than be the victim of it. Their reasoning? Basically, that the ethical failing of perpetrating this kind of hoax for so long could be effectively addressed and dealt with by the NFL (because they have such a great track record of helping players overcome ethical and moral failings). However, the naiveté reflected in being the victim of such an elaborate and longstanding hoax was incurable; no one would know how to help with that.

Wow.

Before I go further, let me put some things out there first: 1. I am a diehard football fan. I love the game and have been an avid fan since I was 13 years old and the Giants took their first trip to the Superbowl. I sat in front of my 13″ color tv in my bedroom dutifully recording game stats and generally being quite a nuisance to my mother in the other room with all my shouts of joy and frustration. Football is my favorite sport and defensive linemen are my favorite players, starting with LT (Lawrence Taylor). 2. I do not know if Te’o was complicit in the hoax, but I’m addressing this matter as though he were NOT, mostly because of how those sportscasters on ESPN presented the trouble it would be for the NFL if Te’o was just an innocent victim here.

If Te’o was the victim of a cruel hoax, as he claims, then this situation highlights what happens when student development takes a backseat to athletics. To put it more bluntly, when the student is forgotten and the athlete becomes the ultimate investment. And really, it’s not so far of a stretch to believe that Te’o became emotionally invested and fell deeply in love with a person he never met, who only interacted with him online, by text, and by phone. I must admit that one of my earliest long-term romantic relationships began through the Internet (way back in the dark ages when there was this thing called “IRC”) and I was in love – hard – before I met the guy who lived in another part of the country. I was about the same age as Te’o. And I am not the only person I know, across age groups, who has fallen in love online, long-distance. So, before we get uppity about how ridiculous it is to fall in love with someone you’ve never met in person, consider that the substance of love is far less about what the eye sees than what the ear hears and the heart feels.

Having said that, there are some student development issues/tasks/needs that are evident in the long-term success of the hoax on Te’o. Attending to these however, would have required that Te’o be seen as a student first – a student who needed further learning, growth, and development to become a mature adult capable of handling not just this hoax but a career in the NFL. As his father told Katie Couric, “He’s not a liar. He’s a kid.” Kids need guidance and support and someone who can ask hard questions. However, I doubt that Te’o, like too many student-athletes, was given the time and encouragement to engage with anything that wasn’t about football (practice, academic eligibility, etc.). As blown away as I was to hear seasoned former players and coaches confess that the NFL was not equipped to handle the naiveté displayed by Te’o, I honestly can’t fault them either. Despite the increasingly younger and younger players who are leaving college to enter the draft, the NFL is not structured for young adult development; it is a business with employees (players) who are expected to be able to comport themselves as mature adults. Unless the NFL is going to add a student development division to every one of its 32 teams, that learning, growth, and development needs to be handled in college. And sequestering players within the halls of the athletics complex isn’t going to achieve that.

I see the following student development issues at play:

1. Interpersonal competence, managing emotions, and developing mature, interpersonal relationships. Those familiar with Chickering & Reisser’s (1993) Seven Vectors Model recognize these as elements of that model. Interpersonal competence is one of the tines of the first vector about developing competence and the other two are vectors themselves in the theory. These 3 pieces, interconnected and mutually reinforcing, when successfully resolved, may have prompted Te’o to ask probing questions about this new woman who seemed to be his perfect match, question her failure to show up at agreed-upon meeting times in-person, and enlist trusted friends or relatives who would ask hard questions about this woman, her motives, and perhaps her very existence.

2. Perhaps some moral development ala Gilligan’s ethics of care, moving from love as self-sacrifice to seeing oneself as morally equivalent to the other, would have perhaps helped Te’o to realize that something was really unequal about all the time and effort he was investing into this woman and wasn’t getting it back in return.

3. Development along one of Chickering & Reisser’s other vectors, developing integrity, would have assisted Te’o with how to handle the continued questions from reporters just days before one of the biggest games of his life about this woman who he was now beginning to realize may not be real.

Neither maturity nor development (increasing complexity and ability to handle increasingly complex issues and situations) is not inevitable, nor is it necessarily natural. Environments can be designed in such a way as to provide the support and challenge necessary for both maturity and development to occur. Many valid arguments can be made for why the NFL (or any other post-college employer) should not be expected to fulfill those needs. Many valid arguments and empirically tested models exist supporting the success of colleges with doing exactly that. However, sequestering one group of students, like student-athletes in revenue-generating sports (typically DI men’s football and basketball and in some places women’s basketball too), away from the environmental elements of colleges and the staff with the training to be most effective at promoting that maturity and development, is bound to produce young men (mostly) and women who are ill-suited to meet the challenges of a world where everyone doesn’t have their best interest at heart and their naiveté can be used against them. Examples like Manti Te’o and countless others continue to demonstrate the necessity of reintegrating college athletics into a holistic student development program that prioritizes the student and the “kid” before the athlete.