The Fraud of Manti Te’o

By now, most of you have read the story that Deadspin broke earlier today that the tragic death of Manti Te’o’s girlfriend Lennay Kekua is a hoax.  In a statement, Te’o claims that this was a horrible fraud played on him and his family in which they are completely innocent victims:

…over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her.

Since I’m sure most of you have read the Deadspin story or seen the coverage on ESPN, I won’t rehash many of the points made or the evidence presented.  Instead, I’m going to point out some things that I think make Te’o’s explanation seem less than genuine.

First, someone had to have told the South Bend Tribune this:

It never felt like a chance meeting, although it probably appeared that way from the outside looking in…Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te’o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes…Lennay Kekua was a Stanford student and Cardinal football fan when the two exchanged glances, handshakes and phone numbers that fateful weekend three seasons ago…

And Te’o’s father most certainly told the South Bend Tribune this:

“They started out as just friends,” Brian Te’o said. “Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there. But within the last year, they became a couple.

These statements clearly dispute the account that Te’o gave today of meeting a woman online whom he never met face-to-face during their entire relationship.  So, who told the Tribune the story of their meeting?  It seems that the Tribune extensively interviewed Te’o’s family for this story.  My guess is someone in the family, probably Te’o’s father Brian, related these meetings to the newspaper.

Second, Te’o’s extensive interview with Gene Wojciechowski of ESPN made the relationship out to be much more than just online flirting.  Te’o’s subsequent statements regarding their relationship, particularly after her purported death, also support the idea that they were much more involved than just through the internet.

Third, as Deadspin points out:

On the day of the BCS championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama, CBS This Morning ran a three-minute story that featured a direct quote from Lennay Kekua:

Babe, if anything happens to me, you promise that you’ll stay there and you’ll play and you’ll honor me through the way you play.

CBS also displayed a photo, supposedly of Kekua, accompanying a graphic of the quote.  Who gave them the quote?  I can’t imagine it being anyone other than Te’o, his family, or Notre Dame officials.

Fourth, Te’o and Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the alleged perpetrator of the hoax, appear to have been good friends.  Friends enough that they frequently tweeted one another and Tuiasosopo visited Te’o for the Nov. 24 Notre Dame/USC game.

Based on these things and some other information in the reports and media coverage, I can come up with three scenarios as to how this played out, two more likely than the other.

1. Te’o is telling the truth and he was absolutely clueless about this whole thing.  He was just a dumb naive college boy who got sucked into a fake relationship with a hot “woman” on the internet, who ended up not being a woman at all, and who completely played him, the press, Notre Dame and millions of sports fans.  (MOST UNLIKELY SCENARIO).

2. Te’o was in on this from the beginning and tricked us all.  Either he and Tuiasosopo came up with this plan, or maybe Te’o came up with it on his own.  He either lied to his family about a number of details, or his family was in on the scam too.  Same goes for Notre Dame.  Either they bought his fake story, or they were in on it too. (SOMEWHAT MORE LIKELY SCENARIO).

3. Te’o was duped but as the story took off he, his family, and Notre Dame began to embellish elements of the story in order to make it more dramatic, more emotional, and thus more newsworthy.  The goal: to pull at the nation’s heartstrings hoping to turn that into a Heisman Trophy.  In this scenario, Te’o really does think that he’s developing a relationship with this woman over the internet, and really does believe that she gets sick and eventually dies.  However, Notre Dame, Te’o’s parents, or even Te’o himself understand that a strictly internet relationship, where the couple never meets, and never has any real interaction, doesn’t quite pull at the emotions like the “chance” meeting the South Bend Tribune describes in the article above.  So, realizing that they have a chance to push a narrative that might jump start a successful Heisman campaign, they begin to add to the story.  They met at a Stanford/Notre Dame game in 2009.  She flies to Hawaii to visit him when he’s home.  They write letters to one another.  They talk on the phone until he falls asleep and then when he wakes up 8 hours later he can still hear her breathing, asleep, on the other end.  She doesn’t want him to miss the football game because of he funeral.  They come up with the quote that CBS ran with the day of the BCS Championship game. And so on.   Here, Te’o really was the victim of a hoax.  But, that’s where his, Notre Dame’s, and his family’s innocence end.  Te’o really thought he was having a “relationship” with a woman named Lennay Kekua.  But after her supposed passing, he, his family, and Notre Dame realize that the tragedy has the potential to become the most heartwarming and inspirational story of the 2012 sports year.  It just needs a little embellishment to make it more palatable.  And that’s what we got. (MOST LIKELY SCENARIO).

Implicit in all of this, however, is the national media.  Whatever scenario actually played out, they bought it hook-line-and-sinker.  Not one national journalist ever thought to actually check out any of this.  Even Wojciechowski at ESPN said that he once thought of trying to find Kekua’s obituary, but when he couldn’t, he just let it drop and thought it was no big deal.  It took the sports website Deadspin to actually do some digging to unearth what appears to be a pretty easy story to uncover.  There seems to be absolutely no records of Lennay Kekua ever existing.  No record of her attending Stanford, no record of a car accident, no record of a death, and no record of a funeral.  You would think that at least one journalist from one major news outlet, ESPN?  Sports Illustrated?  The New York Times?  might actually have taken five minutes to check on even just one of those things.  NOPE.  It never once even occurred to them.  That should tell you a lot about the state of the media today.  If the story is too good and is a lock for driving web traffic, newspaper readers, and television viewers, then why check out its veracity?  Just run with it.  It couldn’t possibly be fake, right?

UPDATE:  I saw one post on Twitter that made me reconsider scenario #2.  He didn’t Skype or Face Time with this woman whom he was supposedly so in love with?  Really?  They were in such a serious relationship that her death literally shook his life to the core and yet they never once tried Skype?  If they did, who was the woman he saw on the other side?  It seems that it certainly wasn’t the woman in the pictures of the Twitter account that was associated with Kekua.  That woman was interviewed by Deadspin and had no idea about any of this until they presented the evidence to her.

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