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Te'o Drama Is Telling In More Ways Than One

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o.
David J. Phillip
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o.

Finally, I have a word about Manti Te'o, the star Notre Dame linebacker, Heisman trophy runner up, who says he was the victim of an ugly hoax where someone — probably a male friend of his — created an online identity of a young women, with whom Te'o says he fell in love, although he never met her.

Can I just ask you? Is it okay that I can't work up a lot of outrage about this? Yes, lying is bad. Te'o — who just had an interview with talk show host Katie Couric — admits he did lie, at least briefly, because he repeated the story in an interview at least once after he knew it wasn't true.

Overall, though, he insists he was the victim, not the perpetrator of a hoax. His family and Notre Dame officials agree, especially after the university hired investigators to check the story out .

If it's all the same to you, though, I'd like to save my outrage for a different story on that campus. What happened to a real girl who died, not a fake one: Lizzy Seeberg. This is a good place to mention that what I have to say next isn't for everybody's ears.

According to Washington Post columnist Melinda Henneberger — herself a Notre Dame alumna — who has reported on this extensively, Seeberg was 19 years old, a freshman at St. Mary's College, which is nearby Notre Dame.

Two years ago, she took her own life, after she reported to campus police that a Notre Dame football player sexually assaulted her, and nothing happened. Well, not nothing, according to Henneberger.

After Lizzy Seeberg went to campus police, a friend of the player in question sent her a series of texts telling her that "Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea" and "Don't Do Anything You'd Regret." But investigators didn't even interview the accused until 15 days after the report and five days after she'd died.

Henneberger writes about another incident where a girl claimed she'd been assaulted by a player and received text messages telling her to keep her mouth shut. In neither case has there been a disciplinary or criminal sanction.

I will leave it to others to decide whether Notre Dame's official attitude toward sexual assault — at least where football players are concerned — takes its cue from the Taliban, where anything that happens to a woman is somehow her fault.

But I want to save some outrage for the rest of us: the adults out here who have really left our young people impossibly muddled messages about sexuality. This is not to excuse violence or even irresponsible behavior by any means. But it is to say that our messages, as a culture, to young people are utterly incoherent.

The traditionalist message about sex, "No. Stop. Don't. Quick! Get married! To someone of the opposite sex!" — absolutely ignores the reality that there is, for most people these days, a very long ramp to adulthood.

That marriage at 19, or 20, or 22 isn't the norm. That different people love differently, and it can take time to figure that out. And that there is a deep desire for both physical and emotional intimacy during that long ramp to adulthood that "No. Stop. Don't." does not address.

In Te'o's case, is it really hard to understand why a young man, being held to certain expectations, might satisfy that desire with an online relationship with a girl he never met?

But the hyper-liberal message about sex, "Whatever, It's All Good." doesn't do it either. "Whatever" doesn't describe or explain the deep power of sex, or the reality that not everything that feels good is good for you.

Don't get me started on a culture that tells girls to own their inner vixen while still punishing the victim when it all goes wrong. Don't get me started on a culture that claims everybody's equal but still tells boys — like sportscaster Brent Musburger did recently — that their reward for being successful at something, say football, is that they get the girl, as if she's a gift-wrapped present.

So, yes, lying is bad. But let's be mad at ourselves, because we are lying to young people everyday by refusing to tell them what we know is true. Sex is big, powerful, and complicated. And the time and place to find that out should not be in a locker room, at a kegger, on the Internet, or god forbid, at the police station.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.