I think in many ways this Deadspin story (which it seemed like the whole of my Twitter feed linked to, so hat tips all around) about the fake girlfriend of a well known college football player speaks for itself. But here are some of the things it has me pondering. It still seems up for grabs at what point the player in question was aware that this was a not real person. (Deadspin has some reasonable evidence that it was pretty early on, but people are often pretty blind to things when they want to be.)
With the "Catfish" documentary and now the TV show, there's some focus on the number of people adjusting themselves in online relationships. I'm going to argue that this type of fakery has existed since the first person lied about their family money (ie pretty much forever) but certainly the internet can facilitate such things. I don't believe I spoken before about a former roommate's story but what struck me reading this one about the player was how their seems to be a pattern to such things. (Perhaps this is me extrapolating too much, but these are the admittedly random samples that I have.)
So, roommate (as I'll refer to him for obvious reasons) met a girl in a chat room online. They hit it off and progressed to regular emails and IMs. They mailed each other photos. (No I cannot recollect why they mailed photos rather than emailing.) They, or at least he, referred to themselves as dating. (Note: I do know real and substantive relationships that started this way.) They progressed to phone calls. Then she confessed she had fudged her age. She was a few years younger than she had originally said, but she was super smart and had gone to college early. Then she confessed she had a brain tumor and had been given only a few months to live, but since falling in love with him had exceeded the doctor's predictions. Then her friend called the roommate and told him she had died.
Now I haven't spoken to roommate in quite some time, but at the time he considered this a real substantive relationship that had been cut tragically short. And I'll confess that technically I have no proof that this did not happen exactly as relayed. I just suspect that the person he dated was at best an avatar.
So, reading this story about the football player I can see how - again possibly because the sum total of my knowledge of this situation comes from the story linked above, so this is me spitballing with no proof or anything - but I can see how maybe he thought he'd encountered a cool girl online and that they had all this stuff in common. And then he started telling people he was dating and when people asked if he had met her, he did what many of us might have considered which is to say, of course. Because even when you are sure there's nothing to worry about, you know that it sounds weird to be dating someone you never met, so you say yeah, we've totally met. (Note: Again, I know people who's relationships developed significantly online, but in person meeting is always eventually a goal.)
And then you've told this to your friends, your family, your coach, the news reporters, and now its a thing. And more interestingly its a thing that people seem to really like about you. So now you feel like this is your story. So, I can see how this would be a challenge if you then discovered that yeah, no, not a real person. Or, yeah, no, that's that guy who I met at that thing. Again, I don't know if that's what happened. I'm not suggesting that this would make it acceptable or okay. It would not. If he was legitimately tricked the whole time, or part of the time, or non of the time, it helps explain why one might do this, it doesn't make tricking people about yourself or others okay. The vehemence of his teammates and coaches in initially defending him, even the fact that many of the first links I saw about this started with, "If this is true" indicates a lot of people believed this. Even the number of news articles discussing this piece of backstory (and yes, we could take a moment to decry the decline of journalism, but, still, wow, imagine now you have to check every time someone says they are dating someone to make sure they are real? I mean, possibly so.)
So, technically, if this girl never existed, this is a victimless crime. Except of course if the player didn't know. Or didn't always know. And yes, theoretically, the player's ability to play should be the thing we care about. But, we all know that isn't true. Human interest angles help us feel more attached to people we don't know. Or in the case of his teammates and coaches and family, people we do. Maybe he would have been just as awesome and dedicated to a real life girlfriend. But it's hard to tell. It doesn't change the way he played. But if it didn't change the way we talked about him, he could have just said they broke up a long time ago.
In his statement to Deadspin, he says, "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." And I'm not sure at all that that's the take away. I think, sure, a healthy dose of caution is a great idea, both with people you meet on line and in real life.
I certainly have met lovely people on line with whom I now have in person relationships. And in many cases, they turned out to be much like I expected from our on line interactions. I talk with long distance friends and family on line. And there are plenty of people for whom my only interaction will likely be on line, our paths in real life might never cross. Or cross only once or twice. And all of this is fine. The internet, the phone, video chat, all of these allow people to start, continue and maintain relationships. But not all people are honest about themselves. And not all people are honest about, well, their girlfriend in Canada. That's not really the fault of the internet.
Note: I had this all written up, and then saw a commenter on ALOTT5MA post this link, and yeah, this is looking less hoaxy by the minute. I don't agree with the leap that he might be gay, although certainly it would explain why he might choose to not really pursue meeting someone in person when you are a person who travels regularly. Others have suggested a fake girlfriend solves a lot of issues when one is trying to live a chaste life, especially as a college football player. Also, I have seen suggestions elsewhere that some reporters did mention that they were unable to find the obituary for the dead fake girlfriend and were asked to leave it alone. Doesn't really sound better, but just to note that some people apparently attempted some due diligence.