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This is no time for jumping to conclusions. The Manti Te’o story is so bizarre, so convoluted and open for speculation, that almost any explanation seems possible. As the story continues to unfold, I suspect it could get even weirder in the coming days.

Did Te’o, the Notre Dame football star, fall for an elaborate hoax and carry on a much-publicized, year-long romantic relationship with a woman he had never met – and who never existed?

Did he help concoct the plot to enhance his Heisman Trophy prospects and his marketability? Or perhaps the answer lies somewhere in-between. Could Te’o have been duped and then allowed it to carry on because he was embarrassed?

Given the facts at hand, I find it extremely difficult to believe that Te’o was a victim, that to use his words, he “developed an emotional relationship with a woman online” and fell for “someone’s sick joke and constant lies.”

Maybe I’m a cynic, or hopelessly out of touch with modern culture. People are pointing me to “Catfish,” a TV show that features desperate people being tricked into phony relationships over social media. It’s stunning what passes for entertainment nowadays.

I haven’t seen it. And I don’t believe Te’o was some lonely, innocent loser who got “Catfished,” either. I’m sure it’s comforting for the Notre Dame crowd to buy into it, but it seems too convenient.

Really, are we supposed to believe that Te’o had an emotional, loving relationship with a woman whom he’d never met or held? During telephone chats, could he honestly have mistaken the fabricated words of a phony as those of a genuinely caring person?

We’re expected to believe that Te’o never went from Indiana to California to see Lennay Kekua, his devoted girlfriend? Not when she was supposedly involved in an auto accident, or when she came down with leukemia? He never met her family?

My God, I’m speaking as if Lennay Kekua were a real person. She never existed! But the college sporting world wept last Sept. 11 when it discovered that Kekua had died – by remarkable coincidence, on the same day Te’o lost his beloved grandmother.

The mainstream media lapped it up. They’re the real suckers here. During the college football season, as Notre Dame kept winning and Te’o kept making big plays at linebacker, the story of the star and the dead girlfriend became a heart-warming tale for all the nation to share.

Everyone got on board: CBS This Morning, ESPN, Sports Illustrated … from the biggest outlets to the South Bend, Ind., daily paper, they were all reeled in. No one bothered to find the facts, to see if this Lennay Kekua had existed, or gone to Stanford, or died.

Why get in the way of a human interest story that paints an athlete in a sympathetic light? We love those stories. Why intrude on someone’s grief by asking the hard questions? If the grandmother and girlfriend died six hours apart, call it “irony” and look the other way.

You should never underestimate the need for fans to believe. It’s why sports get compared with religion, why the word “fanatic” was shortened to fan. It’s no wonder the country’s most revered Catholic football program could achieve such privileged, exalted status.

Deadspin broke the news Wednesday, embarrassing the mainstream media. That’s what the website does best. Give them credit, they did the reporting. The facts weren’t airtight, but they exposed the hoax. They followed the trail to a friend of Te’o, who was apparently behind the scheme. Deadspin reporters talked to friends and family who believed Te’o probably knew Lennay Kekua was a fake.

Notre Dame went along, too. Jack Swarbrick, the vice president and athletics director, explained during a 40-minute press conference that Te’o informed his coaches Dec. 26 that he had been duped.

That means the university sat on the information for three weeks, saying it was waiting for Te’o to go public next Monday.

Swarbrick described Te’o as a victim of this “sad little game.” He said the real tragedy – he paused to collect himself and take a drink, near tears – was that Te’o would never be able to trust again.

That was quite a performance, coming from a Notre Dame official. The school wasn’t nearly as quick to emotionally pronounce the victimhood of two women who were alleged victims of sexual assault by football players – both of whom played in the BCS Championship Game this month.

In 2010, 19-year-old Lizzy Seeberg accused a Notre Dame football player of sexual assault. Seeberg reported the incident to the police, but later got a message from a friend of the player, telling her that messing with Notre Dame football was a bad idea.

Seeberg later committed suicide. Months later, another woman told friends she had been raped by a Notre Dame football player at an off-campus party. According to reports, knowing of Seeberg’s ordeal made her decide not to file a report on the ride to the hospital.

Of course, we’re talking about Notre Dame football here. Above all, you have to protect the institution and the millions. It’s the same principle as the Sandusky scandal at Penn State. When so much is at stake, the brand becomes bigger than the truth.

Te’o didn’t assault anyone. He’s not evil. That doesn’t mean he’s some naive Mormon kid, either. The tales of his love for a dying woman, along with his exploits at linebacker, made the sort of narrative that sustains the myth of Notre Dame, which gave us Rudy and The Gipper.

By continuing to associate athletic ability with virtue, we all become willing dupes. At Penn State, that means elevating Joe Paterno to sainthood while boys are being raped in the shower.

Lance Armstrong beats cancer, so we’re more willing to turn our heads to doping when he wins the Tour de France seven times in a row. He was a hero to the cancer community, but a cheater and a fraud. How could he do such a thing? Uh, to win and become famous and wealthy?

Again, I don’t have all the facts. But I can see how Te’o and a friend might have created the girlfriend to generate publicity and make him seem like an American football hero, worthy of the Heisman and the financial bounty that comes with it.

Te’o finished second in the Heisman voting. Still, the feel-good stories made him a hot commodity coming out of college. You don’t think perceived character matters? Look at Tim Tebow. He was the epitome of youthful virtue; it earned him millions before he took an NFL snap.

That’s a cynical view, I know. But money always matters. It lurks and leers in the background of every college sports scandal. With the money comes the temptation to bend the rules and twist the truth.

I’m not sure we’ll ever know the whole truth about Te’o. No doubt, a lot of NFL scouts and general managers are wondering, too. As fate would have it, Mel Kiper came out with his first mock draft Wednesday and had Te’o going to the Bills at No. 8.

It’s hard to see him going that high now. He played poorly in the title game. He’s not an elite athlete. Worst of all for an NFL prospect, Te’o has created doubt. He has given teams a reason to wonder if he’s all that he appears to be.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com