Given that I'm a not a college football fan and had never heard of Manti Te'o before he made headlines a couple of weeks ago, I can't say that I've been especially interested in learning more details about how the online girlfriend he thought had died from Leukemia (on the same day as his grandmother) never existed. Instead, Te'o claims that he was the victim of a hoax. But the press isn't taking Te'o at his word. Reporters have asked if Te'o was in on the so-called hoax all along. Indiana University anthropology professor Ilana Gershon has another take on the matter, though. She says in a piece for The Atlantic that it's quite possible that Te'o was duped and that Samoan culture's conventions about gender likely made the Notre Dame football star the perfect victim.
"As an ethnographer, I heard a number of stories that sound almost exactly like Te'o's story--naïve Christian golden boys who had been fooled by other Samoans pretending to be dewy-eyed innocents," Gershon writes. "Leukemia was even a theme--I guess Samoan pranksters keep turning to the same diseases. I heard these stories as gossip--women in their late teens or early 20s would tell me about how a much sought-after man in their church had been fooled."
Gershon says that she had these conversations with Samoans years before social networking sites and cell phones became commonplace. She says that a major reason these hoaxes succeed is because young men and women in religious Samoan communities don't mix as freely as Western youth of opposite sexes typically do. Gershon also points out that it wouldn't have been easy for Te'o to vet his "girlfriend" because the Samoan community is very tight knit and asking other Samoans about her would've led to gossip that may have sullied her reputation.
"So much of this news story is hauntingly familiar to me from fieldwork with Samoan migrants: the role of family, the half-hearted attempts to verify a person's identity that fail, the strong spiritual connection Te'o thought he felt with Kekua, and the hoax itself," Gershon writes.
Pacific Islanders who left comments about Gershon's take agree with her. One wrote that youths who grew up in the Polynesian Mormon community differ dramatically from standard American teenagers. Another explained that in Samoan culture, "Sexes are very segregated and family comes first. There is often familial arrangement and vetting of potential dating partners before they are allowed to date in person. What it all adds up to is that Manti's story is very plausible."
So, what do you think? Does knowing more about Te'o's cultural background change your opinion about his infamous hoax?