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The Manti Te'o Scandal: What Can Companies Learn From It?

January 18, 2013

Even if you've never watched a college football game in your life, you undoubtedly know something about Notre Dame's legendary program. Star athletes such as Joe Theisman, Tim Brown and Joe Montana have laced up their cleats for the team from South Bend, as did Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger who is arguably the most well-known unknown in college football history, thanks to a film called Rudy.

Today, Manti Te'o's name can be added to the list of famous folks from Notre Dame, or perhaps infamous in this case. Without question Te'o is a phenomenal athlete. He is an All-American linebacker who is projected to be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, although that's no longer a certainty.

Oh, and you might have heard that he played this past season with a heavy heart after the death of two very important women in his life: his grandmother and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua. Thankfully, it turns out, his girlfriend never died. But she never existed either. DeadSpin, an online sports news website, first reported Te'o's troubling tale.

After the story broke on Jan. 16, Notre Dame held a news conference supporting their athlete, saying Te'o was the victim of a cruel hoax.

"To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating," Te'o said in a statement.

The DeadSpin report, on the other hand, casts doubt on that assertion. I won't speculate on whether Te'o helped perpetrate the hoax; the truth will undoubtedly come out sooner or later.

What I do believe is that when stars are held to different standards when it comes to ethics, it reflects badly on the organization even if it improves the bottom line in the short term. Te'o, according to reports, told Notre Dame about the hoax on Dec. 26, 2012, a couple of weeks before Notre Dame was set to play the Alabama Crimson Tide for the BCS championship game, college football's marquee event. On Jan. 3, 2013, he was asked about his girlfriend, but said nothing about the hoax.

Perhaps Notre Dame or whoever advises Te'o told him to continue with business as usual, i.e., focusing on the game, until they had all the facts. But then why answer the question at all? Why not say, "I'd rather focus on the game"? It's puzzling.

A cynic could easily say that distractions detract from performance, and winning means money in college athletics—and especially in college football. While it would be nice to think that Notre Dame had Te'o's best interests in mind, at first blush, it looks like the school may have been more concerned with football success than setting the record straight.

The business world has its own examples of dubious behavior. In a report from last year, the CEO of WalMart de Mexico, who was identified as the driving force behind a bribery scandal, according to a New York Times investigation, wasn't disciplined when the facts came out during an internal investigation. In fact, he was promoted. "Confronted with evidence of corruption in Mexico, top Wal-Mart executives focused more on damage control than on rooting out wrongdoing," the story said.

Yes, stars bring in the bucks for organizations, and as long as they're playing the game the right way, they should be rewarded it for it. But it's important for organizations to stick to their playbook (that is, not treat top talent any differently in potentially unethical situations) if a star fumbles the ball.

When in doubt, trust in transparency to get you that touchdown.

James Tehrani is Workforce's copy desk chief. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.