CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The punch lines were rolling on Thursday.
Manti Te'o's girlfriend is Miss January in the 2013 Mayan calendar. Te'o's favorite song: "It was just my imagination." I had a fake girlfriend like Manti Te'o in college, but at least I had the decency to use the picture that came with my wallet. I'm glad Manti Te'o's fake dead girlfriend isn't around to see this. On the bright side for Manti Te'o, his relationship was probably better than any Taylor Swift had. AJ McCarron's girlfriend will be featured in an SI swimsuit issue. Manti Te'o's girlfriend will be featured on "Myth Busters."And my favorite, tweeted by Seth Meyers: These Te'o jokes are all very funny, but let's all try and remember that a person who never existed is dead.Somehow, though, it feels uncomfortable to laugh.Because whatever the truth might be, a 21-year-old kid is taking the punches.
Don't misunderstand. As a sports writer and journalist who has been around the proverbial block, I'm more cynical of Te'o's role in the purported hoax than most.When you see someone glowingly portrayed as the Notre Dame linebacker, always, always take it with a grain of salt. None of us are saints. If you want to worship saints find those named Christopher, Gabriel, Joan of Arc and Francis of Assisi.Likewise, no saints are named Jack Swarbrick. Perhaps the Notre Dame athletic director is satisfied with his school's findings on the Te'o, well, affair. But the rest of us understand the AD is also looking out for his behind as well as the reputation of the school.Soon enough the complete unadulterated story will surface.Many of us have some of the same basic questions. Why would Te'o ever call a woman he'd not met or spent quality time with his girlfriend? As a star football player, why not date - for real? Why didn't one journalist, including the television networks covering the national championship, track down the girl, her parents, etc.?And, of course, the most basic of basic questions: Did Te'o perpetuate or keep quiet on purpose to help his Heisman Trophy candidacy and football career?If the answer to the last question is yes, Te'o will be scorned for years, if not forever. And his words alone, his statements, won't answer that question. Those who continue to follow the bizarre, twisted story will come to their own conclusion.But the jokes, the punch lines are coming at the expense of a kid fresh out of college.That's what makes me uncomfortable. Sure Te'o has been spoiled. By the school. By fans. By the press.Those who follow my column know I wasn't high on Te'o's play. He was not - and the national title game proved me correct - one of the nation's top few players. He was a fine linebacker on a very good team. But he entered the championship game as the nation's No. 59 tackler. He was not on my Heisman Trophy ballot. Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina was my pick and, after he made Vincent Smith look like a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robot in the Outback Bowl, I feel at peace with that.So Te'o might be spoiled. He might have been on a team for which I never cared. He certainly was overhyped.No one, however, at age 21 is ready for the blowback of a story like this.At that age, most of us were feeling our way, looking for a job, trying to find an apartment. We were like colts wobbling away.If you're older, remember yourself back then. Then imagine yourself dealing with the entire nation's white hot stare, the Internet's evisceration.Te'o is entangled in a public firestorm that no other 21-year-old has ever experienced.Whether he brought it on himself or not, we'll see.But it's tough to laugh when a kid's well being is on the line.Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.