Thursday, January 17, 2013

Before we condemn -- or laugh at -- Manti Te'o

Image obtained from Yahoo! Sports.
Look, I don't know any more than you do whether star Notre Dame linebacker was in on this whole 'fake girlfriend' thing or not.

If he was, he's got some serious problems -- and needs some serious help.

If he was the victim of a cruel hoax, as Notre Dame is saying so far, people are going to think him a fool, an idiot, a naif at best: You never actually saw this girl, this love of your life, in person? You never Skyped, you never Facetimed?

But before you hurl stones, ladies and gentlemen, where are you right now?

We live so much of our lives on line these days, sometimes the people we meet here are darn near as real to us as the living, breathing people we interact with in person. If we actually do interact with anyone in real life, that is.

In an essay last April about the difficulties of telling truth from fiction on line, I cited to the terribly sad case of Paula Bonhomme, a woman duped into spending over $10,000 on gifts for a 'man' named 'Jesse James' that she 'met' through an acquaintance in an Internet chatroom dedicated to fans of the HBO series Deadwood. Actually, the acquaintance didn't make an introduction, she made up Jesse -- and an extended family, too. Eventually, the victim 'met' most of Jesse's 'family'; she thought she and 'Jesse' were in love, and she made plans to fly from her California home to meet Jesse in Colorado and move in with him. 'He' canceled at the last minute, though, sending the poor woman into depression and therapy and eventually, according to her pleadings, an infection caused by the depression-related suppression of her auto-immune system. Then she was told that Jesse had 'died' -- of liver cancer (not leukemia as in Te'o's case). Even after Jesse's 'death,' the poor woman kept up a relationship with the mutual 'friend' who had supposedly made the introduction, the defendant in this case, meeting her in Colorado and traveling to New Mexico to visit some of Jesse's favorite places. When the defendant came to visit her in California, the victim spent over $1,000 prepping the house for the visit.

When the deception was finally revealed, plaintiff sued -- but the Illinois courts held she had failed to state a claim and threw her case out of court. See, Bonhomme v. St. James, 407 Ill. App. 3d 1080, 945 N.E.2d 1181 (2nd Dist. 2011), Appellate Court affirmed in part and reversed in part by the Illinois Supreme Court, 2012 IL 112393. (For any lawyers out there, the Supreme Court held that plaintiff had waived any other claims she might have been able to make, placing all of her hopes in a claim for the tort of fraudulent misrepresentation, but that tort did not lie because the parties did not have a business relationship.)

Why did the defendant in the Bonhomme case do these terrible things? For fun, perhaps, and for the gifts -- for the money.

Why would someone ensnare Manti Te'o in this horrible web of deceit? Well, supposedly, Te'o finally realized something was amiss when his 'dead girlfriend' called early in December... as Notre Dame was preparing for the BCS National Championship Game. Maybe gambling interests were aware of the hoax from the outset, or maybe some smart guy sniffed it out and decided to 'reveal' the situation to Te'o at a time when it would mess him, and the team, up most. Notre Dame generally -- and Te'o in particular -- played as if they were seriously distracted by something.

I'd like to think that Te'o will be exonerated from complicity in the hoax, even if he ends up being perceived as hopelessly gullible from all this. Of course, I also wanted to believe that Tiger Woods wouldn't cheat on his gorgeous wife.

But, as we rely increasingly on our screens to get us through our days, to manage our appointments, to do our networking, to manage even our 'friendships,' I can't help but wonder if all of us won't become increasingly vulnerable to scams like this. If all the "Nigerian generals' widows" would just take a course or two in grammar and basic writing skills, how many more of us would get sucked in?

No. I may feel sorry for Te'o and I may wind up angry at him. But I won't laugh. There's nothing funny in this story.

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