The news broke Wednesday afternoon at it was a bombshell: Deadspin.com reported there might be a problem with part of the heart-wrenching tale that had been told by numerous mainstream news organizations about the deaths of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s grandmother and girlfriend within a span of six hours in September.
According to Deadspin’s Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, there was just one problem with this courageous tale of perseverance in the face of almost unimaginable tragedy—the girlfriend didn’t exist.
According to Deadspin, the photographs that had been identified as Lennay Kekua are actually from the social media accounts of another woman, with a different name, who didn’t go to Stanford, didn’t get into a serious car crash and has never had leukemia.
Oh, and by the way, she’s also never met Te’o.
Where to start with this?
Te’o is taking a beating on social media tonight. He has gone from Heisman runner-up to household punchline after a poor performance in the BCS national championship game on Jan. 7 followed by this bizarre tale unfolding today.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said at a press conference Wednesday night that the coaches were told by Te’o and his parents the day after Christmas, Dec. 26, that Te’o had been the victim of a hoax.
According to ESPN.com, Swarbrick said that someone using a fictitious name “apparently ingratiated herself” with Te’o, then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had died of leukemia.
Te’o also released a statement, in which he said, in part, “To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.”
The entire affair does raise a question … or several thousand.
Most fundamentally, how could one be involved in a relationship for two years without ever meeting or setting eyes on the other person? In this age of cell phones and Internet video conferencing, how are we really supposed to believe that Te’o never had a clue that he was being duped?
Swarbrick did confirm Wednesday night that Te’o and Kekua never met in person. “This was exclusively an online relationship,” Swarbrick said.
How could so many news organizations—Sports Illustrated, ESPN, CBS, NBC and others—run with this story without verifying so much of it? Te’o may be taking the brunt of the abuse today, but it’s fair to think there will also be heads rolling and difficult questions being asked in a number of newsrooms in the wake of Deadspin’s report.
To be fair to Te’o, his grandmother, Annette Santiago, did die on Sept. 12.
The story gets even more confusing when Arizona Cardinals fullback Reagan Mauia told ESPN.com that he met Kekua in person on a trip to American Samoa in June 2011.
“This was before her and Manti,” Mauia said Wednesday evening. “I don’t think Manti was even in the picture, but she and I became good friends. We would talk off and on, just checking up on each other kind of thing. I am close to her family. When she was going through the loss of her father, I was—I offered a comforting shoulder and just someone to bounce her emotions off. That was just from meeting her in Samoa.”
So at this point, the truth of the whole mess is out there … somewhere. The one thing we can all be sure of is that we will all be inundated with the tale for the next several days, at the very least.
What may or may not come out of this is the answer to one other question this brings to mind: Is Manti Te’o really that naïve? Or is he just that devious?
At this point, only Manti Te’o knows the answer to that question.