An Idiot’s Guide to the Manti Te’o Scandal
There are strange stories, and then there is the downright bizarre tale of Manti Te’o, an All-American linebacker for Notre Dame whose tragic personal life turned out to be not so tragic at all.
In fact, it was all a big hoax, akin to the likes of the popular movie Catfish.
For many months, Te’o captivated the world of college football with said story, which began in September 2012 when his grandmother and girlfriend died within days of each other.
From there, he turned tragedy into triumph, leading the Fighting Irish on the field all the way to the BCS National Championship game, where they lost 42-14 to Alabama in an admittedly clumsy performance.
Along the way, there were cover stories (Sports Illustrated profiled Te’o for its Oct. 1 issue, in a story called “The Full Manti”); there were awards (in December, he was named the Walter Camp Player of the Year award, just days before he almost won the Heisman).
Most of all, there was the unmitigated support from football fans across the Nation.
And then, on Jan. 16, there was this article from Deadspin, which put the spotlight back on Te’o — for all the wrong reasons.
What Deadspin quickly uncovered was that Te’o’s girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, allegedly a 22-year-old Stanford student who died of leukemia shortly after being involved in a serious car accident, didn’t actually exist. This, despite numerous accounts — many from Te’o himself — of phone conversations (Te’o told Sports Illustrated that he had phoned Kekua at the hospital), Twitter exchanges and an actual in-person meeting. (Te’o had said he met Kekua after a Notre Dame-Stanford football game in 2009.)
Deadspin eventually put two and two together when they got in contact with a woman, known only as Reba, whose photos were being used on Kekua’s various social media sites and in a profile on CBS This Morning.
One specific was photo was sent by Reba to a former classmate named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who had requested she hold up a sign that read “MSMK.” The sign, Deadspin writes, was for Tuiasosopo’s ailing cousin, who had allegedly seen pictures of Reba and “thought she was pretty.” Once she found out what was going on, things got, well, a little weird.
Eventually — on Dec. 6, to be exact — Te’o himself found out about the hoax at the ESPN/Home Depot Awards, when he received a phone call informing him that Kekua was still alive. He came clean to his family over the holiday break, then to Head Coach Brian Kelly and Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco on. Dec. 26, and athletics director Jack Swarbrick, on Dec. 27. A private investigator was subsequently hired; he was reportedly cleared on Jan. 4, according to reports.
But before anything else could happen, the Deadspin article came out, forcing Te’o to come clean once and for all.
On Jan. 16, hours after the report was published, he said this to ESPN:
This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but 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. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating. It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother’s death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life. I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been. In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was. Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I’m looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft.
A statement from Notre Dame Assistant Vice President Dennis Brown followed:
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.
In wake of the Deadspin article, and amid allegations that he may have been involved in the hoax, T’eo sat down for a two-and-a-half-hour interview with ESPN, during which he explained his side of the story.
“Two guys and a girl are responsible for the whole thing … According to Ronaiah, Ronaiah’s one,” T’eo told ESPN.
He also clarified why he lied about meeting Kekua in 2009.
“I even knew, that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn’t meet, and that alone — people find out that this girl who died, I was so invested in, I didn’t meet her, as well. So I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away, so that people wouldn’t think that I was some crazy dude,” he said.
“My relationship with Lennay wasn’t a four-year relationship. There were blocks and times and periods in which we would talk and then it would end,” he continued, adding it kicked into high-gear when Kekua told him that her dad had died. (Get more details from the incredibly in-depth interview on ESPN.)
More pieces to this increasingly confusing puzzle should suss out in the coming weeks; later today, Te’o will appear in an exclusive interview with Katie Couric on her daytime talk show. (In a clip released Tuesday, Te’o tells the talk-show host, “Now I get a phone call on Dec. 6, saying that she’s alive and then I’m going be put on national TV two days later. And to ask me about the same question. You know, what would you do? … Katie, put yourself in my situation. I, my whole world told me that she died on Sept. 12. Everybody knew that. This girl, who I committed myself to, died on Sept. 12.”)
For now, though, it’s worth checking out the full account from Deadspin, which is epic, crazy and jaw-dropping, in that Law & Order marathon kind of way.
What do you think of the Manti Te’o scandal? Did it leave you totally stumped, too? Share your thoughts in the comments, below.
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