We Notre Dame football fans have had a bizarre and emotional ten days.
First, on January 7, Alabama slaughtered the Irish in the BCS National Championship game, 42-14. This part wasn’t that bizarre, admittedly, but it was quite disappointing. Then, head coach Brian Kelly, who had previously insisted he had no interest in jumping to the NFL, almost jumped to the NFL to coach the Philadelphia Eagles before saying he’d stay at the school. Feelings of betrayal gave way to relief.
Finally – please, let it be “finally” – on Wednesday, it was revealed that star linebacker and Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o has been caught up and/or implicated in a stunning hoax that involves a dead girlfriend who apparently never existed. (This has been too confusing to summarize here, but a quick Google search will get you up to speed.)
The game feels like it was played six months ago.
Since the news about Te’o broke Wednesday evening, I have been refreshing my Twitter feed constantly. I watched a 45-minute press conference held by Notre Dame’s athletic director Wednesday night, glued to my computer screen. I have read scores of articles as bits of information have come to light. I have spent comparatively little energy on anything else.
This morning, suddenly craving a bit of quiet, I walked over to the church next to my office, a few minutes before the noontime Mass began.
I tried to stop thinking about it, which never works, and paid intermittent attention at best during the liturgy. But I did leave with three lessons in mind.
1. I need to be careful to avoid that blurry zone between admiration of a sports star and idol worship.
I like sports and outstanding athletes for a handful of reasons, including the fact that sports can provide terrific ways to develop virtues: teamwork and others-centeredness, discipline and perseverance in the pursuit of a common goal, leadership and integrity. Athletes who embody these traits can be legitimate sources of inspiration.
Throughout the 2012 football season, Manti Te’o appeared to exhibit – no, incarnate – all of these characteristics. He was excellent on the field despite great personal trauma. And he was always humble during interviews, deflecting praise while leading the team to an undefeated regular season.
I started saying some pretty over-the-top things: He just won’t let us lose the championship. He’s the best player Notre Dame has ever had, and one of the best people. He is single-handedly leading the Irish back to national prominence.
Unconsciously, I turned Te’o into a demigod, a superhero I could trust to always save the day. My blind faith in him resembled the unexamined, magical religious faith of childhood. He could do no wrong.
The past 24 hours have offered a harsh reminder of the peril of believing humans to be divine. It’s not fair to them, or to God. It’s especially silly to admire someone so fully whom I’ve never met, and know only through television features and online news.
This brought me to the second and third lessons:
2. The Internet is good at connecting people, but it can never replace face-to-face relationships.
Te’o and Notre Dame insist that the linebacker was tricked by an elaborate scheme, in which a handful of people worked together to fabricate the online personality that Te’o believed to be his girlfriend. Yes, he considered someone he had never met in person to be his girlfriend.
This notion clearly confused Notre Dame’s 58-year old athletic director during his press conference last night. But it’s not that surprising for Millennials. The simultaneous privacy and distance the Internet provides can make emotional intimacy feel easier online – the other person can’t see you blush. But that sort of intimacy is just a shadow of the real thing, which can be embarrassing and awkward because it’s more vulnerable.
Te’o’s story is an extreme and frightening example of what can happen in online-only relationships, but it serves as a reminder that face-to-face interaction will never be obsolete.
3. I need to care less about the exploits of 21-year olds I will never meet.
I will always love sports. I will always love Notre Dame, a place that formed me more than almost any other. I will always love Notre Dame football. But I need to take a step back and practice some detachment.
College football is a game played by kids. My attention to it should be proportional to its importance in the grand scheme of things. That would leave more time and energy for news that really matters, among other things. For instance, I somehow missed that more than 80 Syrian students were killed at Aleppo University yesterday. But I did spend about half an hour sifting through biographical details of the guy who is the supposed hoax ringleader.
As the story develops and then recedes into memory, I hope I can internalize these lessons and live them. After all, the 2013 season is less than eight months away.