We are understandably fascinated and shocked by the story of the young Hawaiian football player Manti Te’o and the discovery that the death of his “girlfriend” was a hoax. There was no woman by the name he knew and she did not die. Most shocking is the revelation that the young man never met this woman he loved and that he grieved terribly over her death. The Heisman Trophy winner is now an object of ridicule and scorn but there are many layers of complexity to the story.
Many people doubt Te’o’s sincerity and believe he must have been the one who perpetrated the hoax to achieve sympathy and recognition. We like our athletes to have back stories of struggle and adversity. We want them to be our heroes. They accomplish athletic feats that most of us cannot attain and fame and wealth to which many aspire. We need them to be special, we want to admire them. One of the most fascinating comments I heard on TV was someone questioning why a football star who could “have any woman he wanted” engage in a relationship with a woman he never met. We are all aware that groupies pursue the famous, powerful and notorious. Who would turn away from such a cornucopia of sex? Sex in our culture is objectified, it is one of the material goodies to which the successful are entitled; lots of sex with lots of people. Our media sell sex along with fancy cars, palatial homes, designer clothes, luxury brands of liquor and bling. Doesn’t everyone want these? Is there something wrong with you if you don’t?
Maybe that is not what T’eo sought. Raised in Hawaii, T’eo was a high achieving teenager who excelled at football early in his life. He also did well academically, became an Eagle Scout and participated actively in his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints also known as the Mormon church. His online biography states he volunteered at a food bank, for the Special Olympics, Head Start and at a local hospital. What can be inferred from this? Perhaps that he is a kind, concerned and well meaning young man who may well be sexually immature and socially unadventurous. He is an active member of a church that discourages consumption of alcohol and pre-marital sex. Perhaps he is also shy and romantically inexperienced.
While the media blare SEX SEX SEX at us there are still young people who are fearful and avoid sex, people who delay sexual activity for a variety of reasons and people who are socially awkward. Many shy or socially anxious people find greater comfort in the anonymity of the internet and the ability to form relationships without the stress of meeting people and the risk of rejection that can entail. We find that possibility particularly unlikely in our athletes, especially football, the most machismo of sports. There is still great intolerance for a football player who is gay and a young man without a girlfriend, someone not on the prowl for sexual conquest? That is someone who makes us deeply uncomfortable. That does not fit our image of sports superstar. They should be on the make or, if married, it should be to a supermodel such as the wives (and former wives) of Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi.
In fact there is a large universe of people who meet and interact primarily online. These relationships can involve a great deal of communication, self-disclosure and intimacy. They do not involve sex but that does not make the relationship unreal or unsatisfying. Teenagers who are shy or reserved often make their first close relationships online but many typical adults meet and communicate online for extended periods before meeting someone to date in person. How many of us live far from loved ones, children, beloved long term friends with whom we primarily communicate via telephone or email. Do we not still experience warmth, richness, humor, support and empathy despite a lack of physical contact?
We all search for intimacy and connection. There are many ways to find it. Sex is not at the center of many of our important relationships. Does our discomfort with Manti Te’o’s story stem more from our projections about how a young man or a star athlete is supposed to be? As we attempt to move away from stereotypes about who and how we can love this story can help us see the range of human possibility.