Through most of the Te'o-related frivolity this afternoon, I joined shamelessly in the speculation and joke-making at Manti's expense regarding the whole girlfriend hoax situation, which I will believe until the next insane scandal arises is probably one of the craziest things I've ever heard. But now that we've all probably read the Deadspin piece that started the whole thing, watched Jack Swarbrick's amazingly surreal press conference, and joked, I decided to sit down and actually lay out my thoughts on the subject. If you didn't want to know, I'm sorry you willfully clicked on the link bringing you to this page.
First and foremost, I reserve the right should any new information arise shedding more light on the situation to change my opinion completely. That's what new information does or should do: challenge existing viewpoints/biases/notions of how things work. If it comes down the pipe that Te'o was a knowing participant in his own supposed deception, all bets are off.
That said, I'm seeing a lot of people suggesting that Notre Dame and/or Te'o himself fabricated this story, which involves prominently the death of the supposed girlfriend and the motivation stemming therefrom, in order to bolster Te'o's Heisman credentials, as if that wasn't something that almost certainly come out in the end and make everyone look even worse than they do now. I'm also seeing people say that Te'o is either the most gullible person in history or a bald-faced liar. Numerous prominent voices on the twitterverse, especially, have stated their belief that the idea that Te'o himself was fooled by any of this is totally implausible. There's no way, according to those people, that he, his family, or Notre Dame wasn't involved in the ruse.
Call me naive, trusting, or anything else, but I don't think Te'o is ridiculously gullible or a lying liar who would lie if the truth would help him. I think he might be a little bit of both.
It doesn't seem implausible to me at all that Te'o met someone he thought was a girl online, was suckered into believing "she" was as she claimed to be, and never actually met her in person. It may seem extremely strange to older people-- and it did to my boss when we talked about this story today at work-- but people can form an emotional connection without ever having seen each other. Everyone has heard the story of the jailhouse romance formed through letters, well now take that and apply it to a world of instant communication through the internet and social media.
It doesn't seem implausible to me that Te'o formed some kind of online-only relationship with this "girl," invested himself emotionally in it, and considered he and she to be boyfriend and girlfriend. It also doesn't seem implausible to me that when he suddenly began receiving immense attention due to Notre Dame's successes this year, he may have fabricated the details of how they came to know each other (the whole 2009 ND-Stanford game story) and the number of their physical meetings (anything over 0 obviously wasn't true). I think there's still a certain stigma attached to online relationships, particularly where you are a superstar football player who could probably get any girl you wanted. It's actually not implausible to me at all that Te'o didn't want people, especially those on his own football team, to know he was "dating" a girl he'd never met. Unless you believe Te'o one of the greatest actors of our time and a person totally committed to the lie, he seemed to care genuinely about the person he thought was Lennay Kekua, and he may have feared opening himself up to scorn or ridicule by letting everyone know they'd never met.
I don't know Manti Te'o and have no interest in protecting him. There are so many layers to this story that it is impossible for me or anyone else to claim he is totally innocent: He never Googled her? When she supposedly "died," he didn't go to the funeral? Why didn't the fact that she blew off several meetings they were supposed to have send up red flags? Why would his dad also claim that the two had actually met in person? The questions this situation raises are legion while the answers are few. My gut reaction when something like this happens, though, is to find the simplest answer based on the information we have. And right now I think that is that he was duped into believing she existed, probably fudged the details (or as some would call it, lied) of their relationship a bit, and a compliant media never followed up until recently. Unless you have an axe to grind against Notre Dame (and that may be totally justified, see Lizzy Seeberg), I don't see any reason to believe they propagated the false story knowingly or participated in the ruse intentionally. That just seems too far-fetched.