What Manti Te'o Can Learn from Watching Lance Armstrong Confess to Oprah
Manti Te'o has some explaining to do, and the longer he and his newly hired public relations handlers wait to give his side of the "my dead girlfriend was an elaborate hoax and I'm the victim" story, the less likely it is that people are going to accept the truths within his side of the story.
More than that, as Lance Armstrong has learned with his own saga playing out on national television in a much-ballyhooed sit-down with Oprah Winfrey, the longer the guy waits to tell his side of the story, the more time we have to uncover the actual truth.
What, then, are the lessons Te'o can take from how Armstrong has handled his admission of doping?
Take Full Responsibility for Your Actions
It's clear that Te'o bears some responsibility in this sordid tale, and coming clean with exactly what he knew and when is the only way he'll be able to move past this story. Even if we believe that Te'o was duped by Internet pranksters, he knew the truth 20 days before he told officials at Notre Dame. That, per Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick, preceded the additional 20 days Notre Dame sat on the story until Deadspin published its findings.
If we believe the timeline set out by Notre Dame, Te'o learned of the hoax on Dec. 6, some 44 days ago—a timeline that included the Heisman Trophy ceremony and the BCS title game. There were plenty of microphones in Te'o's face to come clean, but Te'o let the world believe his fake girlfriend was dead that whole time.
In his first public comments, he must take responsibility for his lies, before he explains how the lies of others began this mess.
Tell the Whole Truth
Moments after the first night of Oprah's sit-down with Armstrong, CNN's Anderson Cooper interviewed Betsy Andreu, wife of Armstrong's former teammate Frankie Andreu, who vehemently rebutted several claims Armstrong made in his confession to Oprah.
Specifically, Andreu talked about her experience with Armstrong in a hospital room in the mid-1990s when, she claims, the rider admitted to doctors what performance-enhancing drugs he had taken.
Even though Armstrong promised Oprah—and America—full disclosure, he punted on the question about what Andreu heard, saying he was "laying down on that one."
He should have said "lying down."
If Armstrong wasn't willing to tell the whole truth, how can we believe any of what he says?
If there is a takeaway for Te'o from Armstrong's admission, it's that telling the truth can't come in installments.
Sympathy Only Works If You're Clean
Unlike Armstrong, who really has no reason to come clean at this time (other than the continuing legal battles he's fighting), Te'o has an entire football career ahead of him. Unless he was absolutely not a part of this scandal in any way, he cannot play the sympathy card. When Te'o gives his side of the story, it has to be matter-of-fact and sincere, but not a plea for more sympathy.
Like Armstrong, the public has given Te'o enough sympathy already. His struggle with grieving the loss of two loved ones drew the sympathy of millions of Americans. We don't have any sympathy left for him.
Even if he was duped, the fact it has taken this long to speak out makes him an unsympathetic figure.
If, like Armstrong, his initial denials of involvement were a load of crap, asking for sympathy now would be a long-term disaster.
Talk to a Sports Person
Armstrong decided to come clean to Oprah Winfrey, who, admittedly, was more prepared than many expected her to be. The first installment of their interview was detailed, pointed and very well organized. For Armstrong, however, the story is not about athletics. Armstrong's story is about mom-and-pop Middle America and winning back the trust of all the cancer survivors he's inspired over the years.
For Te'o, he must try to move past this and get back to being an excellent football player. Keeping his story within the framework of sports is the best chance he has, so talking with someone like ESPN's Jeremy Schaap or NBC's Bob Costas makes more sense for his credibility than running to Oprah—no matter how good her questions may be.
The great irony in the Te'o story is that sports people got caught up making a very human moment—death—into the backdrop for athletic achievement. More than one national pundit called Te'o's return to the field just days after his grandmother and girlfriend had both reportedly died "heartwarming," or a "feel-good" story.
A 22-year-old woman dying of cancer after a horrible car accident was the catalyst for a feel-good story, because it led to her boyfriend playing a football game with a heavy heart and winning a game ball.
For better or worse, talking to a sports person can keep this a sports story. For Te'o, that may be the most important thing right now.
Do It Live and Do It Now
Armstrong waited too long to come clean, and it wasn't until months after he lost his final fight with USADA and the United States legal system that he decided to do so. The obvious reasons for coming clean now have sullied whatever truth Armstrong is trying to tell; he missed his chance for forgiveness.
Te'o still has that chance. If he hid the truth during his Heisman run, was in on the gambit after initially being tricked or was the mastermind of this elaborate fraud the whole time, he still has the chance to get out from under this. He just needs to do it now.
And it behooves Te'o to do it live.
Allowing a network to tape an interview gives them the chance to take his words and dig into each comment to provide proper context. In most cases, editing is the friend of the show, not the subject.
Doing an interview live also allows him to get his own words out before leaks of what he said emerge and people can challenge what he said, making the remarks look far worse once we see them for ourselves.
The last thing Te'o wants is what happened to Armstrong: an updated version of the truth coming out before America has a chance to hear what he has to say. Taping on a Monday to air on Thursday doesn't work.
Again, he needs to do it now.
Having worked in sports PR for more than a decade (and witnessing firsthand a few of the bigger college sports scandals in recent memory), I have never once seen the "duck and cover" method work.
Neither hiding the truth nor hiding from the truth will benefit Te'o. Look what it's done for Armstrong.