Lesson of Te'o: Heartbreak is heartbreak

Online romance has big risks, but falling in love face-to-face doesn't mean the love is pain-free.

I'm not sure what's more weird, the idea that Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o fell in love with a woman who didn't exist or the soap opera sideshow that has developed around the saga of his fake dead girlfriend.

We've moved from skepticism to voyeuristic obsession since the story broke last month. Katie Couric's television ratings soared when she booked Te'o and his family on her talk show last week. Dr. Phil milked interviews with Te'o's hoaxer for scads of publicity this week.

I understand the fascination. It makes for great coffee shop chatter and compelling TV. But after we've wrung out all the drama, what's the take away from this story of heartbreak and deception?

The television interviews may have clarified facts, but they didn't bring us much closer to truth.

That's because getting there requires a suspension of disbelief, an understanding that in matters of the heart, real describes feelings, not people.

If you didn't grow up with Facebook, iChat and Instagram, you might find Te'o's love story odd. It started with a friend request online and blossomed into romance through text messages and cellphone calls. Lennay Kukua was smart and pretty. Samoan, like Te'o, and respectful of his Mormon faith.

Their plans to meet always seemed to fall through. But he never doubted she existed, he said. He told Couric they'd drift off to sleep on the phone; he'd wake up and listen to her breathe.

"Why wouldn't you want a real girlfriend you could spend time with?" Couric asked him.

Because Lennay seemed real enough. "I found a lot of peace and a lot of comfort from being able to talk to somebody who knew my faith, knew my standards and understood," Te'o said.

Comfort, acceptance, someone who understands and loves the real me. We recognize that as love.

It's hard to find in real life; it's pretty easy to fake online.

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When the story of Te'o's dead girlfriend began to unravel, conspiracy theorists and football fanatics suggested that Te'o had invented the tragedy to pump up his Heisman Trophy chances.

That's a nod to the power of "star-crossed lover" sagas. But if the 800 sportswriters who pick the Heisman Trophy winner can be swayed by that sort of off-the-field drama, they are bigger rubes than Te'o.

Because the romantic charade came to light the same week that cyclist Lance Armstrong finally came clean about doping, it was easy to regard the sporting world as a morality-free zone, where everyone's looking for an edge and Te'o is just another cheater courting glory.

Should the cops be brought in to investigate? Will Te'o's stock drop in the NFL draft?

That's just us thrashing around because we feel duped and don't know what to make of this.

"Are you gay?" Couric asked Te'o. Or "the most naive person on the planet?" As if a 'yes' to either of those could tidy up this episode.

But it was Couric, in fact, who came off as naive, as she scolded Te'o for "sticking to the script" for weeks after he realized that he'd been tricked and Lennay Kukua might not even exist.

If she'd been in his shoes, Couric said, she would have gone immediately to her coaches and declared "We've got to get to the bottom of this!"

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