Manti Te’o, a Fake Girlfriend, and Questions…Lots and Lots of Questions

It started with this piece at Deadspin1:

Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, the stories said, played this season under a terrible burden. A Mormon linebacker who led his Catholic school’s football program back to glory, Te’o was whipsawed between personal tragedies along the way. In the span of six hours in September, as Sports Illustrated told it, Te’o learned first of the death of his grandmother, Annette Santiago, and then of the death of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua.

There was no Lennay Kekua. Lennay Kekua did not meet Manti Te’o after the Stanford game in 2009. Lennay Kekua did not attend Stanford. Lennay Kekua never visited Manti Te’o in Hawaii. Lennay Kekua was not in a car accident. Lennay Kekua did not talk to Manti Te’o every night on the telephone. She was not diagnosed with cancer, did not spend time in the hospital, did not engage in a lengthy battle with leukemia. She never had a bone marrow transplant. She was not released from the hospital on Sept. 10, nor did Brian Te’o congratulate her for this over the telephone. She did not insist that Manti Te’o play in the Michigan State or Michigan games, and did not request he send white flowers to her funeral. Her favorite color was not white. Her brother, Koa, did not inform Manti Te’o that she was dead. Koa did not exist. Her funeral did not take place in Carson, Calif., and her casket was not closed at 9 a.m. exactly. She was not laid to rest.

and grew from there. The initial reaction was that Te’o and, possibly Notre Dame itself had been lying about the existence of Te’o’s girlfriend and her subsequent death. Then the tide started to shift2. First, Notre Dame issued a statement:

On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia. The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.

Dennis Brown University Spokesman | Assistant Vice President

as did Mani Te’o himself:

“This was a tough decision, and I found myself praying about it often. Ultimately, I really want to experience my senior year at Notre Dame. The happiest moments so far in my life have come when I am spending time with people I love. I wanted to spend another year with my teammates and the coaches on our team. I don’t think any sum of money can replace the memories I can create in my senior year.

“Graduating from Notre Dame is really important to me. Many people encouraged me to go to the NFL because I could always earn my diploma later in life. If I did that, though, I would not have the chance for the same experiences that are ahead of me in my senior year, and I would not have finished at Notre Dame with the guys I started with and care so much about. When I weighed all the factors that went into this decision, it just felt right to stay at Notre Dame.”

Then, Notre Dame held a press conference, where Notre Dame Athletic director Jack Swarbrick expressed his trust in Te’o and explained that Te’o was the victim of a “very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax.” The statement was convincing. For example, Pat Forde from Yahoo Sports wrote:

On an unnerving night when it was hard to know what to believe and who to trust, Jack Swarbrick convinced me.

Chin quivering and voice catching, the Notre Dame athletic director fought emotion in describing Manti Te’o as “the single most trusting individual I have ever met.” I know Swarbrick fairly well over the course of maybe two dozen interactions, both professional and personal – well enough to have a read on his personality. This was not a high-paid suit engaged in damage control; this was a man who sincerely believes that the most popular Fighting Irish football player in decades was wronged far more than he was wrong.

Still, some people remain skeptical and confused.

I am firmly in the confused camp. I cannot make heads or tails of this story. I want to refuse to believe that Te’o was in on the hoax, but it is also tough to believe that someone that visible could fall for such a ruse. I assume that things will be clearer as more investigation takes place and more details start to emerge, but for now, I have no idea what to think.

I think Pat Forde sums up how a lot of people feel at this point:

There are lessons to be learned from all this, but in the end I’m not sure anyone will come out of it better for the experience. The sad takeaway is that we once again must raise our levels of disbelief and distrust. Already a cynical society, we apparently need to ramp up the cynicism a little more. Because there are plenty of people out there ready, willing and more able than ever through the anonymity of the Internet, to perpetrate a lie.

And the next time we come across a feel-good story, we’ll all have to stop and ask ourselves whether we’re willing to believe it. That doesn’t feel very good.

No. No it does not.

  1. It really is a “must read.” There are simply too many details to quote. 

  2. No Alabama reference intended.