In the interview with Katie Couric, Brian Te’o didn’t set out to make a distinction that would embolden a national conversation. He was defending his son.
Lance Armstrong. Manti Te’o. Beyoncé?
Three stars. All accused, in one way or another, of perpetuating a lie, or at least a deception. The news has been all over it, and reaction has been unrelenting. From USA Today and the New York Times to CNN and ESPN, pundits and “experts” weigh in.
On either end of the controversy there is relative unanimity that shapes the dialogue. Armstrong is almost universally condemned for his intricately devious, calculated and strategic lie. Due to Beyoncé’s respect for the event and the President, in contrast, her decision to pre-record and sing to her own voice is a common tactic when singers are faced with weather, crowd and other logistical challenges that might affect their performance. For almost everyone, the former has been written off, and the latter has been exonerated, even praised.
But Manti Te’o intrigues us because, well, “he’s a kid.” Yet he is also an icon, an inspiration, a leader. How could he have done this? What was he thinking, especially once he learned the truth?
As the story unfolded, and Manti’s parents appeared with him on the Katie Couric show, his father, Brian, said “He’s not a liar. He’s a kid.” With that single statement, Brian Te’o forced us to look more carefully at what was at stake in this hyper-inflated controversy. Is Manti to be forgiven because of his age? He is, after all, just a kid. Or is this incident an example of a deeper, more sinister side to the Heisman finalist? For me, three thoughts come to mind.
First, Manti lied, pure and simple. He not only lied, he lied repeatedly, without nuance or subtlety. But, is he a liar? Yes and no. He is a young man who over and over again lied to cover up an embarrassing and quite public perception.
Secondly, and this is important, and I have yet to hear any of the pundits making this distinction: He lied, but that doesn’t mean he is a liar. Among the most common of ways we describe behavior, good or bad, is to assign an all-inclusive and permanent label on the person behind that behavior. When someone drinks too much, they are a drunk. When they make a good play or salvage an important game, they are a great athlete. And when someone lies, they are a liar. The label, then, becomes the person, the thing we remember, and we respond accordingly. The current focus fueling Manti’s circumstance is how will he be viewed as a pro. Will he lose endorsement deals? Is his character (another universal label that has a hard time slipping into the background of the public mind) at question? Can he be trusted as a teammate?
Lastly, Manti and Brian Te’o teach us a crucial lesson that we all know but so easily ignore when pressed by life’s circumstances: when we lie, the truth will eventually come out. Whether it is covering up drinking at a party, cheating on taxes, or telling the cop I only had one beer, with few exceptions we will be found out. And when we are, the consequences are always worse then they would’ve been had we been honest up front. Add to that the energy it takes to maintain a lie, and somehow deep inside we know that as hard as it is at first to admit, a hidden lie is as internally destructive as it is in public (I honestly don’t know how Lance Armstrong did it). But if Manti had come clean the day he found out he had been duped, it would have been painful, and yes, embarrassing. But it would have quickly faded and been remembered as a mistake by a famous but developmentally in transition college kid. The biggest issue, and what got him in this mess, is he perpetuated the lie.
It is what is hidden that ultimately reveals who we are.
Brian Te’o’s plea was straightforward. Give the kid a break. He made a mistake. Yes, he lied, but that doesn’t make him a liar. He is not necessarily worthy of a lifetime of penance over an adolescent response to a difficult situation. He should have received better counsel from his closest friends and coaches. Someone should have dug into this more deeply, and more quickly, and helped Manti to come clean, take the hit and be done with it. But he didn’t, and he’s paying quite a price.
By the way, I agree with Brian, 100%. The attention and scrutiny of this is comical, and at times worse, it is slipping into destructive. If Manti were your kid, what would you do? I would say, “Give him a break! He’s not a liar, he’s a kid!” Then I would turn to my son and say, “Let’s talk through, step by step, what happened, and why, and then see how we could learn from this. But, know this: I will always stand with you, because you are not a liar, you are my son, and I love and believe in you.”