By Tim Graham
The longer Manti Te'o waits to speak, the worse his fake-dead-girlfriend saga will become for Notre Dame's star linebacker.
"He's dead meat or at least damaged goods if he doesn't do something within the next couple of days," said Stephen Bell, partner and public affairs director for Eric Mower and Associates.
"He definitely can get past this, but he needs to be smart about it, and he needs to get some good advice."
Bell, a former Buffalo News managing editor, writes a blog about crisis-control management and mismanagement. His clients include BlueCross BlueShield, the Seneca Nation of Indians, Erie County Medical Center and Mensch Capital.
I reached out to Bell this morning to ask how he would advise Te'o as a client.
"If you do nothing, then your critics get a free shot," Bell said. "They fill the vacuum that you allow to be created with their interpretations of the facts. And when you're lining yourself up against ESPN and Sports Illustrated and the New York Times and CBS and all the rest, you're going to lose.
"They're going to find the truth, and unless the truth is precisely as you've recounted it, then you're going to suffer. Then you become known as a liar, untrustworthy. It's a downward spiral."
Te'o's tarnished reputation won't merely be difficult to cope with on a personal level. It could cost him millions of dollars.
The farther Te'o slides in the draft, the lower his signing bonus and annual income will be. Businesses, whether national or in the town he plays professionally, won't be interested in his endorsements.
"You lose that opportunity if people think that you're a scoundrel or a liar or they can't trust you," Bell said. "No one's going to put their brand behind you if they think you're not telling the truth."
Te'o has dominated sports coverage and tossed Lance Armstrong's hotly anticipated confession from the front burner into the sink.
Deadspin.com reported Wednesday that the much-repeated inspirational tale of Te'o's late girlfriend was a hoax. She not only hadn't been in a car accident or died of leukemia, but she also didn't exist in the first place.
Te'o released a statement that claimed he was an innocent victim of an elaborate ruse. He claimed his relationship was over the internet and they'd never met. Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick delivered swift, passionate and unconditional support for Te'o.
But too many critical questions linger. The longer they remain unanswered, the worse Te'o gets mired in the morass.
Bell insisted, however, that Te'o can be salvaged.
The plan would include two parts: Speak up and move on.
"The first step is to hold a news conference today or tomorrow -- Sunday at the absolute latest and tell the truth," Bell said. "You need to answer when you first knew she wasn't real. You need to get the facts out, apologize to your fans, apologize to the university, say that you were stupid and say that you're going to do everything that you can to make not only the fans, but also whichever teams draft you proud of you.
"Right now, it's rampant that he only told half the story. So stick to that story, answer the questions, show that it's true, bolster it with facts and then say you're moving on. If there's a shade of truth, then he needs to explain that fully."
The ideal scenario would have been for Te'o and Notre Dame to reveal the hoax themselves soon after it was discovered. Deadspin breaking the story yanked away considerable control from Te'o and Notre Dame.
"When he maintained the fiction until it came out elsewhere, then he was backpedaling," Bell said. "It would have taken a lot of guts at the time to throw the story out and say, 'This is an incremental mess I got myself into, and I'm knee-deep in it, and I want to tell you about it.'
"But that's better than being neck-deep three weeks later."
Unless the Te'o saga reaches new depths, he will be in an NFL locker room within a few months. He will have a career of some sort.
After coming clean, he'll have to turn the page, get on with his life and hope people eventually forget.
"It's not that bad a thing that he's done," Bell said. "It's just incredible. You can't underestimate that a lot of this has to do with the new frontier of social media. A virtual girlfriend? Are you kidding me? That's part of the appeal of this story. It's not just that a kid screwed up.
"If he can explain that he was overwhelmed by it and didn't know what to do, I think he'll be forgiven and it'll become a footnote. Look at Ray Lewis, who's taking this goodbye tour of the NFL playoffs. It wasn't that long ago he was accused of murder, but very few people bring it up.
"Being accused of murder certainly is a lot worse than making up your girlfriend. You can overcome these things -- unless you lie more."