January 23, 2013

Te'o hoax was swallowed hook, line and sinker

Morning Sentinel Staff

The lie behind the love story was exposed last week, after reporters for the sports website Deadspin asked the questions that should have been answered months ago.

The girlfriend whose illness and death inspired Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o to lead his team to an undefeated regular season was a hoax.

Deadspin's exhaustive reporting is worth a full read, but this paragraph sums it up:

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 (the linebacker's father) 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.

The whole thing was a fraud, in other words, and a long list of people who should have questioned it instead fell for it. That includes the writers and editors at Sports Illustrated, which devoted an Oct. 1 cover story to the Manti Te'o myth. It also includes those at the Chicago Tribune, which published 15 articles in the last four months that mentioned Kekua's death.

Te'o says he fell for it, too. He calls it "someone's sick joke." The University of Notre Dame, which hired a private investigator when the story began to unravel, says Te'o is telling the truth.

The university says "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."

Athletic director Jack Swarbrick says the linebacker was "catfished" -- a reference to the 2010 documentary, "Catfish," about a man sucked into a relationship by an online pretender.

According to Te'o and Swarbrick, Kekua was an elaborate hoax constructed by others. Though they corresponded only by Twitter and telephone, Te'o fell hard for the imaginary Kekua. It wasn't until three months after her "death" that he learned she never existed.

If Te'o truly was that gullible, he is at least guilty of spinning the love story to an equally gullible press corps. The South Bend Tribune's fawning account of the relationship describes Kekua's "warm smile and soulful eyes" -- in this version of the story, the couple met, face to face, after a football game in California -- and quotes Te'o's father about the couple's meetings in Hawaii.

Deadspin's reporters compared news accounts of the relationship and found numerous discrepancies in the narrative and timeline.

Kekua's Twitter account was created by a Te'o acquaintance who lives in California, according to Deadspin. There's more, a lot more. It's embarrassing and sad.

It's hard to sort the victims of this hoax from the perpetrators, and Te'o and Notre Dame share the blame for that.

After riding the story all the way through the Heisman Trophy balloting, Te'o -- who was named runner-up -- told university officials on Dec. 26 that Kekua had been fabricated by others without his knowledge. The university's investigator produced a report Jan. 4.

But in the run-up to the Jan. 7 BCS national championship game, reporters were eager to repeat the story line, and Te'o did not disabuse them of it. And Notre Dame "encouraged him to focus forward and focus on the game," Swarbrick said. In other words, it allowed him to perpetuate the lie.

Whatever else comes of it, the Te'o story will be remembered for bringing catfish, the verb, into the mainstream.

To us it feels more like what might delicately be called a "fish story." Unchallenged, it becomes harder and harder to reel in. With each telling, the fish gets bigger and the fight more valiant, and before you know it, it's "The Old Man and the Sea."

What you end up with is a compelling story, and a fiction.

Editorial by the Chicago Tribune

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