By Stewart Mandel
January 18, 2013

I'm a junkie. I'm obsessed. From the moment Deadspin broke its explosive Manti Te'o story on Wednesday, I've barely spent a waking moment focused on anything but this soap opera. On Thursday I got so wrapped up in reading, tweeting and talking about Te'o that I didn't get around to writing this assigned story until late at night.

I think I better understand now why I got so fixated on ABC's Lost a few years ago. I love a good mystery, and this one is more tangled than most scripted stuff.

But the reasons behind my unhealthy level of interest appear to differ from many of yours. I just want to know what happened. It doesn't affect me one way or the other whether Te'o was an innocent victim, a scheming publicity seeker or something in between. Much of the public, however, is having a different and frankly baffling reaction. People want to see a 22-year-old football player destroyed. They decided this the moment they got through reading the original Deadspin story, and everything that comes out now either reinforces their opinion or gets explained away because it interferes with their glee in learning that Notre Dame's star linebacker is, in some form or another, a fraud.

And if, like me, you're waiting to hear from Te'o before drawing any definitive conclusions, you're just as gullible as he was (if he indeed fell for a fake online girlfriend).

THAMEL: Manti Te'o in his own words

On Friday morning, two people in Calfornia, J.R. Vaos and Celeste Tuioti-Mariner, told ESPN's Shelly Smith that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo -- the man believed to be behind Te'o's fictitious flame, Lennay Kekua -- pulled the same hoax on their cousin in 2008. Another woman who declined to go on camera or be identified went a step further, saying Tuiasosopo, described as a "church friend," confessed to her last month with tears in his eyes that he had in fact been scamming Te'o.

REPORT: Friend says Tuiasosopo confessed to orchestrating hoax

Previously, on Thursday, Te'o's uncle went on a radio station in Salt Lake City and told a detailed story of meeting Tuiasosopo prior to the Notre Dame-USC game and suspecting something was awry. The suspicious character kept bringing up a proposed leukemia charity in which he envisioned Te'o participating. He even brought with him a nine-year-old girl who he claimed to be the since-deceased Kekua's cousin.

While still a long way from unearthing the whole tangled mess -- which won't come close to happening until Te'o himself finally speaks publicly -- those interviews seem to corroborate the statements Te'o and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick made Wednesday that Te'o "was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke."

I tweeted segments of Smith's interviews as I watched them Friday morning, figuring people would want to hear them, and here are some of the responses I got:

He greatly exaggerated relationship with what he thought was a dying girl. That's the story now. Scumbag.

Would never call anyone I hadn't met my "girlfriend" to start with. Te'o = Big Fat Liar

He CONTINUED to lie to fans, family, school, teammates, coaches, media for at least 3 additional weeks. F--- Manti Teo !

Are we still talking about a guy with a fake girlfriend? From the tone of discourse you'd think he did something much, much worse.

Whatever the final verdict in all of this, Te'o was hardly an innocent figure. Transcripts posted here Thursday from Pete Thamel's September interview with Te'o show the linebacker purposefully sharing made-up details of how he "met" Kekua, while Te'o's father, Brian, offered similar (but conflicting) details to the South Bend Tribune. That's odd. Swarbrick said Te'o got the first hints that something was awry during a phone call on Dec. 6 from his no-longer-dead girlfriend, yet two days later, at the Heisman Trophy ceremony, Te'o retold the tale of learning Kekua had passed away for a national television audience. Also strange. He waited until Dec. 26 to tell Notre Dame about this. And then, even after the school hired a private investigator and confirmed an apparent hoax, Te'o still answered questions about Kekua days prior to the BCS championship game.

Notre Dame AD calls for Te'o to speak publicly

None of that speaks well for Te'o, but even so, there are any number of possible explanations. My working theory since Wednesday has been that Te'o certainly believed his flame was real (thousands of people fall for similar scams every year), but once the story blew up -- after coaches and teammates saw how devastated he was to lose both his grandmother and girlfriend on the same day, and after we in the media jumped all over this apparent tragedy -- he was too embarrassed to admit he'd never actually met Kekua. So when ESPN and Sports Illustrated came to town, he made up a backstory. And then, when it turned out Lennay never existed in the first place, some combination of shame, confusion, humiliation and manipulation played out from there.

But of course, I'm the dupe for even considering such a middle-of-the-road version.

If @slmandel really believes the Manti stuff he's tweeting I have some funds locked in a Nigerian bank I need him to help me recover. #wow

@slmandel [The] way you defend teo, makes me think you may have had an imaginary Internet g/f at some point

Yea, @slmandel needs to step away from the keyboard for a minute

One day we'll look back at this whole strange story as the moment college football officially entered the same tabloid realm inhabited by Kim Kardashian and Lindsay Lohan. To this point, those of us who cover the sport have mostly remembered that these athletes are not professionals, not yet subject to the same level of scrutiny that Mark Sanchez or LeBron James endure on a weekly/nightly basis. That ship has sailed with Te'o. TMZ and US Weekly are all over this story. And millions of Americans -- many of whom didn't even know who Te'o was three days ago -- are now reading the story and casting judgment the same way they do about Anne Hathaway's Oscar outfit or Taylor Swift's relationship choices.

As for actual college football fans, the pitchforks currently aimed at Te'o presumably stem from the fact that a) he plays for Notre Dame and b) we (the media) deified him throughout last season. There's nothing America loves more than seeing someone held in high esteem precipitously fall from grace.

Much the same thing happened with Tim Tebow. I remember the exact moment he became a "polarizing figure," and it wasn't from anything Tebow himself did. It was Thom Brennamen, the FOX announcer who repeatedly gushed over the Florida quarterback ("What an unbelievable player and even more impressive young man") during the 2008 national championship game against Oklahoma. Tebow returned for his senior season, and that entire year, you could not even tweet that he completed a pass without getting back 10 "WHY ARE YOU SO IN LOVE WITH TEBOW/HE SUCKS/STOP PROPPING HIM UP AS JESUS" responses.

College football stars are now professionals in every aspect but the paycheck.

Te'o is 22 years old. He's finished his college days and is about to become very rich. He's now fair game for anyone who gets joy from tearing down celebrities. For those people, this fake girlfriend story is a virtual Christmas.

ROSENBERG: Te'o hoax sparks more questions than answers

Anyone is entitled to any opinion at this point because most of the facts remain unknown. My theory is no more conclusive at this point than anyone else's. It's your right to believe, as many people do, that Te'o conspired with Tuiasosopo to concoct a fake girlfriend, openly talk about her and to her in front of coaches and teammates, then strategically decide to kill her off within hours of his grandmother's actual death, all as part of a drawn-out scheme to win the Heisman Trophy. Others believe Te'o was genuinely duped but feel no sympathy for his being that gullible. Still others believe the lies he told along the way far exceed any pain he incurred at the hand of his scammers.

My question is: Why are we enjoying this? What satisfaction is it bringing people to know that a college football star was not what he seemed? Te'o didn't cheat his way to seven Tour De France titles. He didn't allow a child molester to roam a school's locker room. He didn't have an affair with his biographer while overseeing a national military operation.

The absolute worst-case scenario here is that Te'o, while a college student, lied about the existence of a girlfriend, and we the media fell for it. Go ahead and shred the guy if you must. Like with Lost, I'm just curious to see how it ends.

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