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Daily Pilot

Steinberg: Te'o's fate unpredictable

By Leigh Steinberg

7:28 PM PST, January 19, 2013

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It was a love story for the ages, and America was transfixed.

Superstar Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o meets a beautiful Stanford coed after a game there and over the succeeding years they fall in love. There are reports of her visiting his family in Hawaii. But later, in 2012, she falls victim to leukemia and dies. Her last wish is that he not come to her funeral but instead excels in the game that Notre Dame has that Saturday. He calls her "the love of his life" and shares his grief with the nation. His grandmother dies on the same day.

What a tragic burden for a young man advertised by his university and the press as an exemplar of character. Notre Dame goes undefeated and plays in the national championship game. The story of Manti's lost love and his courage in the face of adversity is told and retold. He is a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. What drama, what pathos, sometimes life is stranger than fiction. Except for the fact that the woman never existed and most of the story is not true.

This past week, Notre Dame released its version of the "cruel hoax" perpetrated on Manti. Evidently he received a call from the same phone his supposed dead fiancée had used and it was her voice. She wasn't dead. Notre Dame and Te'o waited over a month to go public with the story. A month, in which Te'o continued to tell the same public story about her death.

It seemed Stanford had no record of the woman's enrollment and Manti had never met her, just communicated by phone and social media.

We may never know the true facts of the situation, whether Te'o was innocent victim of a cruel hoax, or complicit in it. But there will be damage to a number of parties in the situation. Because of the repetitive news cycle with 24-hour CNN and ESPN coverage, enhanced by local news, talk radio and the Internet, this story will run over and over again. Until there is a credible explanation of the circumstances, an aggressive press will challenge facts and motivation endlessly.

Michael Vick and Tiger Woods discovered the self-destructive results of stonewalling the press and their images worsened.

Athletes who transcend the narrow genre of sports fans to become household names also become brands. Hundreds of magazines, newspapers, television magazine and talk shows, and social media, focus on interesting people. Due to the prominence of Notre Dame, the success of the football team, Te'o's superlative regular-season play — the story of doomed love got heavy national attention. America yearns for role models. Te'o's chance for heavy endorsements and marketing packages with this pre-packaged prominence was certain. Now it hangs in the balance.

Te'o is currently training for the scouting combine, pro scouting day and competing to be a high draft pick in the NFL. He once was projected to be a top-five first-round pick, with a chance to be the first pick. If there are doubts as to his character, will it impact his draft status? NFL teams will primarily focus on how he projects as an on field force for the next 10 years.

His performance against Alabama is vastly more important than one negative incident in his past. The NFL is not the priesthood. But a team will put $15 million into a guaranteed signing bonus that will be hard to recoup if a player doesn't make it due to personal or competitive problems. And there are continuing cap penalties to a team in that circumstance.

Notre Dame is as high profile a school and athletic program as exists in this country. It has a nationwide following and legions of fans due to its ties with Irish symbolism and the Catholic church.

Notre Dame was the first football program with its own national television contract. The school makes millions in revenue in television, radio, marketing, sponsorship and merchandising, and football success triggers heavy alumni giving. That prominence also has a dynamic effect on recruiting. The Te'o story was a boon to Notre Dame in all those areas. If Notre Dame is found to be somehow complicit in promoting a story it knew to be untrue, the effect would be devastating. If Notre Dame is completely blameless, the publicity and damage as the story continues is unpredictable.

Te'o spoke to ESPN Friday night. If the public believes he was an innocent victim, he may engender sympathy. At worse he will be seen as naive and trusting. But if any of his statements are inconsistent or at variance with what reporters discover to be different facts, this story will have a long run.

An athlete seen as doing wrong can always rehabilitate himself by making a clear public apology. If he acknowledges his errors, apologizes to the negatively impacted constituencies, makes it clear there will be no recurrence, he can start the healing process. If over time, his play and conduct is circumspect, he can recover.

Americans love the fall of the high and mighty. They also love a comeback story. Kobe Bryant and Ray Lewis each had a dramatic untoward situation in the past and today are popular endorsement figures.

I hope that Te'o and Notre Dame were simply victims of a hoax. We need figures in this country to believe in and root for.

LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.