This is what one of the people on the “Official” Fan Club Facebook pages posts: “So what [if] he made up a story about having a girlfriend to inspire his play and perhaps maintain his ego?” (I notice that his page has 36, 557 likes, ten fewer than Johnny Manziel who won the Heisman, but still pretty measly compared to Justin Bieber’s 50,534,555).
This tangled tale —the dead girlfriend who never lived; the “friend” who may have played a “cruel” joke on him; and now Manti’s newest incarnation, according to his statement, as the hoodwinked and “embarrassed” dude who thought he was in “an authentic relationship” and who “grew to care deeply about her” —has an old-fashioned quality about it, despite its digital trappings. It reminds me of how the Hollywood studios had their publicists working overtime to make their stars seem human like their fans. Just as Joan Crawford whose hard face made her seem “bitchy” needed shots of her supposedly adoring children so people could see her “softer” side, so Manti had the inspiration of the doomed, brilliant (Stanford grad, no less), beautiful “Lennay Kekua.” And since Manti plays for Notre Dame, is anyone else hearing the echo of “Just Win One for the Gipper,” except in this story the girl didn’t exist? (The Gipper, alas, both lived and died at the age of twenty-five.)
It was its old-fashioned spin, channeling a twenty-first century version of Love Story, that should have set off alarms. I mean, this supposedly happened in 2012 and outside of Hollywood, does any dying girl say, “Babe, if anything happens, you promise that you’ll stay there and you’ll play and you’ll honor me through the way you play”? Whoever wrote this has been watching a lot of old movies, or has a thing for Knute Rockne or maybe Pride of the Yankees.
But still, the “hoax” is also of a piece with how the younger Millennials, those Manti’s age and younger who grew up with social media, think the world works. They grow up, go to middle and high school, fully aware of the power of promoting the self. Their sense of self is fluid, responsive to the audience they know is out there, and highly influenced by the idea of “likes” on Facebook and in the world. Photoshopping the details of life, literally and figuratively, is part of how they understand the world to be.
So, about that imaginary girlfriend. Did Manti need a girlfriend to be more “likeable” to others or did he need her for himself? Why wasn’t the real-life death of his grandmother enough to invoke the Gipper? Who taught him that his talent wasn’t enough? I’ll leave the answers to those questions to the therapists but the sad truth is that, in the context of the digital age, this story isn’t really as strange or bizarre as it should be.
Manti’s final effort at self-promotion, in his statement, is to try to make himself a poster child for the dangers of online connection. It appears to be as genuine as everything else: “In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was.”