Apart from the fact that the Manti Te’o fake dead girlfriend (or is it dead fake girlfriend?) story provides layers of confusion and intrigue regarding the role of Te’o (if any) in the ruse, his stunning, chronic inability to become suspicious if he wasn’t in on it, and the inexplicable failure of the media to have even the most basic level of curiosity about a story that in hindsight had plenty of holes and inconsistencies is the reality that the situation can have a negative impact on the player’s draft stock.
As one league source with extensive knowledge of the pre-draft process told PFT when the news first broke, “It could get ugly.” Another current NFL decision-maker said that the situation is “not helpful” to Te’o. Others we have contacted apparently are still too shocked by the situation to even begin to process what it all means.
The reality is that, moving forward, the impact of this event on Te’o's draft stock will be driven in large part by how he deals with it moving forward. Despite the Texans’ insistence that they opted not to make Reggie Bush the first pick in the 2006 draft for football reasons, the reality (as we heard time and again) was that the organization became uncomfortable with the manner in which Bush handled questions about an eleventh-hour story regarding free rent received by his family from folks in San Diego who wanted to represent Bush in the NFL.
While plenty of teams have drafted plenty of guys who have done plenty of bad things, most employers don’t react well to applicants whom they believe to be lying to their faces. If Te’o comes across that way in pre-draft interviews, it will not help him. At all.
If a private investigation firm hired by Notre Dame was able to fairly quickly piece together what transpired, any and every NFL team with any interest in Te’o will be able to do the same thing. The teams who are considering drafting him will know the answer to the questions before the questions are asked. That’s why, above all else, Te’o needs to tell the complete and total truth.
From the perspective of the public, which won’t have access to the investigative reports, it’s even more important that Te’o be perceived as telling the truth. Some folks are skillful liars. Others are horrible truth-tellers, displaying many of the signs of dishonesty (e.g., shifty eyes, red blotches on the face and neck, stuttering, stammering) simply because of the stress inherent to the situation.
Unfortunately for Te’o, the “say as little as possible” option no longer exists. Two years ago, when Jets coach Rex Ryan was confronted with bizarre foot-fetish videos (and related online content that never really got much attention), he called it a personal matter, he refused to talk about it, and it went away quickly because he gave the media nothing else to discuss or to explore, like an explanation that seemed a bit implausible or confusing.
In this case, Notre Dame quickly issued a statement painting Te’o as the victim, Te’o did the same, and Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick framed at a press conference the issue that will become the fulcrum for those who are trying to determine whether Te’o was involved in the hoax: the Clintonesque interpretation of the word “met.” Swarbrick explained that Te’o uses the word “met” in this context to refer only to online meetings. The various reports and accounts regarding their relationship suggest that there were multiple in-person meetings. Whether and to what extent Te’o provides a persuasive explanation on this point will go a long way toward shaping the perception of whether he’s telling the truth.
Either way, it’s too late to go silent. Swarbrick has said Te’o will speak. How, where, and when Te’o talks — and what he says and how he says it — will determine whether and to what extent the average fan believes him. What Te’o says behind closed doors with any interested NFL teams will ultimately influence the round in which he’s drafted.