Besides professional sports and semi-automatic weapons, college sports are pretty much the biggest deal in America. So when arguably the biggest college football star of 2012 is accused of perpetrating the biggest hoax and public betrayal of trust since – well – Lance Armstrong, it’s going to cause a few ripples.
Manti Te’o is a linebacker and captain for Notre Dame. The guy led his team to an undefeated regular season, and all the way to the BCS championship game (basically the national grand final for college teams). He won almost every trophy and individual award on offer for the 2012 season (eight in all, becoming “the most decorated collegiate football player of all time” according to Wikipedia). He came second in the Heisman Trophy, awarded to the best college player in the country. He’s all-but guaranteed to be a first round draft pick in the NFL, and a future superstar. The guy is going to be filthy rich in a few months time.
Along with all his on-field accolades and praise, Te’o also stood out for his devout Mormon faith, as well as his overcoming of immense adversity to record such a stellar season in 2012. In September, Te’o experienced two devastating personal losses; his grandmother died, then his girlfriend, in the space of two days. Te’o decided to play through the season, even taking the field days after the double-blow, and continually dedicated victories to the “two women that [he] truly loved.” He received praise for his resolve and strength from all quarters, propelling him to national stardom. His girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had been diagnosed with leukemia after a severe car accident, and died of the disease on September 12.
Except, as has emerged today, his girlfriend did not die at all. In fact, she may have never even existed.
An investigation by sports site Deadspin reveals that, despite Te’o’s repeated references to Kekua through the season, there are no records of her ever existing. No record of her ever being enrolled at Stanford, the college she was reportedly studying at. No funeral notice. No record of death or birth. No record of her being in a car crash. No record of her family. Nothing at all, besides some social media accounts with her name on them.
Through the season, as Notre Dame’s unbeaten streak and Teo’s own star grew, the linebacker naturally gave many interviews. And naturally, a recurring question was about how he overcame the loss of his girlfriend and grandmother on the same day, yet managed to soldier on to lead his team to the championship game. After the game against Michigan State, the next game after the deaths and the first game that stamped Notre Dame as a serious title contender, Te’o remarked “That was for… my girl and my grandmother… I had my family around me. I had my football family around me. I had my girlfriend’s family around me. And at the end of the day, families are forever.”
“Every morning when I wake up and my girlfriend is not on the phone it reminds me that she’s gone. That’s the hardest part for me. I go through it every day” – Boston Globe.
But after the Deadspin report, which cites multiple sources having no record of her existence, Notre Dame and Te’o went into damage control mode. Both released statements saying that Te’o had been duped by an online hoax, that Te’o had sincerely believed in Kekua, and – most bizarrely – that the pair had never actually met, and had been in an exclusively online relationship.
“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,” came a statement from Notre Dame’s Facebook page.
Te’o himself said “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.” Te’o calls it “someone’s sick joke and constant lies.”
For me, this story and explanation has quite a few holes; the biggest being, why did Te’o and his “girlfriend” never meet in person? Timelines are murky around exactly when the pair began “dating,” but most reports put it in early 2012, after the pair had apparently met in 2009 (according to Deadspin). However, despite Te’o largely avoiding specifically citing times when the pair had met during interviews, there exist several mentions of the pair meeting in person – discrediting the defense that Te’o and Kekua had never met physically.
From Manti’s father, Brian, in 2012: “They started out as just friends. 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” – South Bend Tribune.
“The two exchanged glances, handshakes and phone numbers” after a game between Notre Dame and Stanford – South Bend Tribune.
ESPN cites an interview on their “College GameDay” program from October 2nd, where Te’o called her “the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met.” (“met” being the key word here)
Though many outlets are parsing their words to avoid potential future lawsuits, reading between the lines shows that many of these publications see the episode as a hoax by Te’o to gain support and attention. Yahoo Sports puts it: “Perhaps he liked the sound of it, and the way he was portrayed because of it – the heroic athlete overcoming heartbreaking adversity, enduring a romance doomed by death.” Putting my cynic’s hat on here, it certainly didn’t hurt his profile, and playing through adversity wouldn’t have hindered his standing for all the awards he won.
Te’o said he was contacted on December 6, on a number that belonged to Kekua, and was told that the story was not true, that she had not died after all. Notre Dame say that they were informed of the story by Te’o on December 26, and hired a private investigation firm which delivered results on January 4. Why Te’o waited 20 days to tell his college, and why his college waited 13 days after the results were in to call a press conference, will likely come out in coming days. But another interesting point is that on December 8 – two days after Te’o was apparently told of the hoax – he said at an awards dinner “I don’t like cancer at all. I lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer.”
Many obvious questions pop up; why did Te’o never see his “girlfriend” in person? Why did he never ask to see her body, or attend her funeral, or ask for pictures? Why did he never visit her in hospital? Why did he wait almost three weeks to tell Notre Dame, after being told she wasn’t actually dead? Why did Notre Dame wait so long to make a statement, and only then JUST after the Deadspin article emerged? If Te’o was genuinely duped, who was the girl on the end of the phone? And who is the “family” of his girlfriend that he continually references?
In a press conference on October 4th, Te’o remarked that he was “‘very grateful for all of the support [that] my family and my girlfriend’s family have received from so many people.” In post-match reports, Te’o also repeatedly talked about his girlfriend’s family supporting him through her death. If the two had never met in person, how did he know her family? Or, conversely, if we believe that the entire thing was a hoax perpetrated on Te’o – where are the “family”? Who are they?
There are many questions to be answered here, the most burning of all being; “did Manti Te’o fabricate a story about a fake girlfriend dying, for publicity”? If so, it would be an almost indelible stain on one of America’s most promising young athletes, marked forever on his character before his professional career even starts.
In possibly the understatement of the year, he adds “In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious.”