As the first day of the 2013 NFL Draft wound down, it was enthralling to see whether or not Manti Te’o would go in the first round. When the Vikings traded up to get a third pick in the round, Te’o looked like a done deal. Then the Vikes picked a wide receiver. Like most people, I found the Te’o subplot fascinating because of his personal drama. I wondered if he would be judged on his abilities and potential, or on the unfortunate Ronaiah Tuiasosopo hoax. After watching 32 teams pass him over in the first round, I still have no answer as to why he wasn’t chosen on Day 1.
It’s very difficult to judge whether or not Te’o was passed over because of personal or professional reasons. Three linebackers were picked in the first round, and they are all seemingly better prospects. There are questions about Jarvis Jones neck, but he was Gerogia’s best player this past year. Alec Ogletree was a Top 10 pick until he was busted for a DUI in February. Dion Jordan went at #3 and was a far superior prospect than Te’o.
Teams that had needs at linebacker also had holes at other positions. The Bears needed a linebacker, but more pressingly needed an offensive lineman to keep Jay Cutler safe. After taking two superior defensive prospects, the Vikings needed to fill the void left by Percy Harvin. The Ravens had a choice between linebacker and safety; they chose the latter. It’s defensible to say that Te’o was on the wrong side of a coin flip each time.
Still, I can’t help but root for the kid. I also hope that his slide is based entirely on his on-field abilities. If he was passed over because of Tuiasosopo/Kekua incident, then it is just another sad indictment of the NFL’s stunted mindset. In the grandest scheme, whether Te’o’s girlfriend was real or fake has no bearing on any person’s life beyond Te’o. The league willingly drafts men with rap sheets. John Gruden was effusive with his praise for Tyrann Mathieu and Jenoris Jenkins—two players with such dodgy legal histories they were bounced from SEC schools. Even the voice of the NFL’s game of the week, Al Michaels, notched a DUI this past week. The Shield regularly props up former and pending criminals; hopefully it does not view an online hoax with more gravitas than offenses against the law.
If Te’o did drop because of his personal life, then shame on the NFL. He was embarrassed and humbled in front of the entire country. His dirty laundry—again, harmless and what should’ve been a non-story—ruled the internet and nightly news for nearly a month. It was like a sad, real-life version of the Truman Show.
Maybe it wasn’t a prank, rather something Te’o was in on. And maybe, as some have claimed, he is a homosexual. If that’s the case, this story becomes even sadder. A Mormon kid playing at a Catholic university, and trying out for a homophobic league would have no choice but to lie to the world. It’s hard to fathom staring directly at your faith, your schooling, your career, and knowing they’ll never accept you. If teams did not take his heterosexual proclamation to Katie Couric at face value—if they believed his sexuality was an issue—and decided to pass, then Thursday night was a very sad evening for the league. It’s another reminder of how our country’s most popular sport is so out of touch with America’s increasing tolerance and open-mindedness.
I choose to take everything at face value. Te’o wasn’t as good of a prospect as his fellow linebackers. The round evolved in such a way that teams did not need Te’o as much as other draftees. Lennay Kekua had nothing to do with Manti Te’o’s draft. That draft night was based solely on players’ upside.
I hope that Thursday night will be a defining night for Manti Te’o. To my eyes, he is the defense’s version of Tim Tebow. He won in high school, resurrected a prominent college program, won in college, made it to the Heisman ceremony, is deeply religious, and is, by all accounts, a stellar human being. Yet, after all his successes, people doubt his abilities. It will be interesting to see if there is a groundswell for Te’o to play. It will also be fascinating to watch his assimilation into the NFL. Hopefully he has a long career, and is remembered for what he did on the field.