The Manti Te’o Hoax: 6 Questions About the ‘Fake’ Girlfriend That Has the Sports World Reeling

Notre Dame, sportswriters and the linebacker himself all deny that the former Heisman Trophy contender had anything to do with the hoax. But the sports world awoke on Thursday with urgent, towering questions

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Jeff Gross / Getty Images

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o celebrates his team's 22-13 victory over USC in Los Angeles on Nov. 24, 2012.

On Wednesday afternoon, the sports blog Deadspin posted an investigative report showing that the reportedly dead girlfriend of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o possibly never existed — and blew the lid off the Internet. The piece was a paper trail of an investigation going back several years that looked into how the star defensive player for the Fighting Irish could have been fooled by what appears to be an elaborate Internet hoax — or how he could have been involved himself. (Read this summary of the hoax, or follow NewsFeed’s detailed timeline of the “fake” relationship.) Notre Dame, several sportswriters and Te’o himself all deny that the former Heisman Trophy contender had anything to do with the hoax. But the sports world awoke on Thursday with a handful of urgent, towering questions:

How did the hoax go on for so long? Te’o is without a doubt one of the most famous college athletes in the country. How is it that he apparently never introduced friends, family or fans to the girlfriend he’d reportedly been seeing since 2009? And if Te’o was indeed the victim in this hoax, how did he miss any warning signs? While his girlfriend — who claimed to be a 22-year-old Stanford student named Lennay Kekua — was dying of cancer, she reportedly told him not to visit or worry about her. At a press conference last fall, Te’o explained why he stayed in South Bend, Ind., throughout her illness, quoting 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.” Even more confounding than trying to determine how the hoax endured for so long is sorting out when it actually began. Although an Oct. 12 article in the South Bend Tribune claims that the first meeting occurred in Palo Alto, Calif., on Nov. 28, 2009, Te’o wrote to Kekua on Twitter nearly two years later to say it was nice meeting her. Just when did the first meeting — whether online or in person — take place?

(MORE: Timeline of a Hoax: Four Years in the Life of Manti Te’o’s ‘Fake’ Relationship)

Who played “Lennay Kekua”? In a statement released on Wednesday, Te’o explained that his relationship with the young woman he knew as Lennay Kekua had been conducted entirely over the phone and online: “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.” (It’s unclear whether he used Skype, for example, or ever saw the person on the other end of the phone.) Who was he speaking to, through the months and years?

Did Te’o and Kekua ever actually meet in person? Te’o and Kekua reportedly met in 2009 at a Stanford–Notre Dame game, although that hasn’t been substantiated. According to media reports, Te’o had been dating Kekua for “nearly a year” at the time of her death. Notre Dame played a game at Stanford on Nov. 26, 2011, but there is no record of teammates or friends meeting Kekua during that game. She also requested that Te’o not come to visit her while she battled the leukemia that would eventually — allegedly — take her life, requesting instead that he simply send white roses and play in her honor, Te’o recalled in an interview on Oct. 4.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said at a press conference on Wednesday that he met with Te’o on Dec. 27, almost three weeks after the Dec. 6 phone call in which Kekua contacted him and told him she was alive. Swarbrick detailed Te’o’s answer about how the two had met, and when:

“He used the verb ‘we met,’ and he was referring to an online meeting. He responded to an online inquiry. That was the first time he met her. And as part of the hoax, several meetings were set up where Lennay never showed, including some in Hawaii.”

What did Te’os parents really know? In an October interview with the South Bend Tribune, Te’o’s father Brian claimed that the two did indeed meet: “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.” It’s likely that Te’o’s parents were just relating details their son had given them, but it’s unclear whether at any point they were aware of the hoax themselves. What did his parents know, and when did they know it?

Who else was involved in the Kekua persona? Even after Kekua’s alleged death, Te’o reportedly kept in touch with her family. ESPN columnist Gene Wojciechowski was putting together a video for SportsCenter in October to chronicle Te’o’s rise to fame and the emotions he went through during the season. On Wednesday, Wojciechowski explained the tension and pushback he encountered when he pressed Te’o for more details about his girlfriend, including photos:

“I remember trying to find an obituary for his girlfriend and could not. And couldn’t find any record of this car accident. But we asked Manti, could we contact Lennay’s family and he said the family would prefer not to be contacted. Could we have some photos of Lennay? He said the family would prefer not to provide those. And so in that instance, and at that moment, you simply think that you have to respect those wishes. But in retrospect, you can see where some of those things simply were not adding up to make sense.”

Te’o told a reporter from Sports Illustrated (which, like TIME, is owned by Time Warner) in October that the two would fall asleep on the phone together and that “in the morning his phone would show an eight-hour call,” with Kekua breathing on the end of the line. Te’o cited her relatives and specifically named her supposed brother and sister in the same article: “Te’o got a call from his girlfriend’s older brother, Koa, who sobbed, ‘She’s gone.’ ” If Kekua was a hoax, who played the parts of her family?

Who gave sports reporters all the Kekua background? Sports fans have read, and remembered, all the little details: Kekua’s supposed first meeting with Te’o, her car accident, her archived notes to him on her iPad. None of the stories, however, made clear who initially relayed those stories to the reporters that perpetuated the myths, including TIME. The obvious answer may be Te’o or his father. But it remains possible that a third party shared all the small facts and revelations — so who else could have been spilling dirt to the media?

43 comments
TeilaK.Day
TeilaK.Day

The sports world "reeling" over a fake dead girlfriend.  That's on par with having to know what Snookie is doing or why Wham broke up.

crislevin
crislevin

The asian community isn't quite welcome for gays, he is just hiding it from his family with a fictional girlfriend, then decide to "kill" her because he can't keep the lie to the family (they may be asking to meet her, etc).

I don't think he meant for this to get beyond his family, but his dad was happy to describe their love affair to the open, when the media jumped on it, its out of his control and he decide to go with it.

Holdouts
Holdouts

Why is this reporter asking questions now? How come no reporters did any real investigative journalism when supposed girlfriend died? Not one fact checker until Deadspin couldn't find any. Reporter wants to know who fed the dirt to Time? Shouldn't a reporter know the source of a story? Was it Deepthroat?

harper626
harper626

How did he find out about her death?   If she died, she couldn't have contacted him online>

dan_the_southern_man
dan_the_southern_man

Let me see if I understand this correctly. Manti Te'o is trying to make everyone believe he has a girlfriend and A.J. McCarron is hoping most of America (including Lebron James) forgets his ever existed.

truth-in-labeling
truth-in-labeling

The coverup is often worse than the crime.  This internet relationship story (I never actually met her) is even more ridiculous than him making up the story to help his Heisman chances.

RonAbfalter
RonAbfalter

Tim Tebow just has to surface in this story at some point.

JohnCharmer
JohnCharmer

OK, I figured it out. Te'o is gay, found this "girl" online who he could say was his girlfriend, and kept up the facade for several years. Then when she "died" he played the mourning boyfriend. Probably why his teammates were suspicious about the existence of his "girlfriend". Yes, he was duped by a catfisherman, but he used that fraud to cover his sexuality. Dude should just come out already. Oh what tangled webs we weave...

VictoriaJohnson
VictoriaJohnson

I think that Te'o perpetrated this entire scam in order to look heroic in his eyes. How empty does a person have to be, to do this type of thing? This young man has some serious issues it appears. A need for attention and sympathy. He lied to so many, and now he must pay with consequences for his actions. More people will come forward, and the entire truth will be found out.

dee
dee

The real question is, who on earth cares beyond this guy and his friends?  Clearly enough people that blogs are written about it, so I guess the real question is why does anyone care?

DanielRudnick
DanielRudnick

The real question, and the only one that matters, is why didn't any of these so called "reporters" in the MSM actually investigate Teo's bald and uncorroborated assertions? How did SI and all of these other noted publications not at least ask to speak with the girl or her family? Why wasn't any records search conducted for public records such as birth or death certificates? Why didn't any of the media look to see if a girl by this name was even enrolled in Stanford before running these stupid feel good stories? Clearly, there is a media crisis in this country. Funny that Nick Carbone, a member of the MSM, fails to address any of these far more important questions. Here's betting he is just as sloppy or stupid a journalist...

DaveACM
DaveACM

sounds believeable, esp with a big hearted guy like Manti. People might have better things to do with their time?? No bad on his part--keep the heart open man--

WASPNEST
WASPNEST

This is not news and yet the internet is full of this nonsense.  The world is going to hell and this is plastered everywhere.  Good God, The usa has become a village of idiots.

drudown
drudown

Here are "three questions":

1) why is this man's personal life relevant?

2) is it fair to say that anyone in the public eye might wish to concoct a fictitious partner to avoid scrutiny? (i.e., upon themselves and/or upon real partners)

3) was anyone actually prejudiced by this fiction? 

Just curious.

lazarusbrands
lazarusbrands

Sadly, and wisely... Being a grown up, and a gay man... I have to agree with willd61. When I first heard this story, the first thing that came to mind was how many "dead" out of town girlfriends I made up as a teenager to cover for my homosexuality... Which as a teen in Texas in the 1960's, was still considered a felony. Today, homosexuality is no longer a criminal offense in any US state, but it is, albeit lame... an excuse to be kicked out of Notre Dame U, and an excuse to give a Mormon kid electroshock!

Leave the kid alone, and let him march the "walk of shame" that his family, his university, his sport and his religion are going to force him to walk... OR, grow some 'nads and stand up to a society and a couple of oppressive messed up religions and a college sports industry that would rather ruin a kids' life that face its own antiquated insecurities!

But, don't drag this out! To do so will only end up with another gay teen suicide, and a wasted kid with a wasted talent!

If you want to blame someone... blame whatever deity is in charge of the genetic "luck of the draw!!!"  And don't feed me the "Satan causes homosexuality" line... Obama has already proven his birth certificate! GROW UP!

willyd61
willyd61

Sounds like a gay guy making up a beard story

Nathaniel_M_Campbell
Nathaniel_M_Campbell

You left out one of the biggest questions that faces Notre Dame's fantasy of a football culture:

Why were more tears shed for the fictitious death of this fake girlfriend than for the very real death of Elizabeth Seeberg a few years ago? Lizzy was a St. Mary's College student who was found dead of an overdose of sleeping pills after Notre Dame spent two weeks ignoring her accusations that a football player had sexually assaulted her.

Notre Dame has rushed to offer every service and every investigatory power it can to Manti Teo’s family, to avenge this cruel hoax (if it really was a hoax and not the deluded fantasies of a football player worshipped as a god). Where was that speed, that mission, that loving care for Elizabeth Seeberg?

KMC528
KMC528

@harper626 Did you read all the way to the end of the article?  Her brother phoned and said "she's gone".

VictoriaJohnson
VictoriaJohnson

@JohnCharmer Your last sentence says it all.This could cost him his NFL career. The NFL is not about weak, and how weak would an individual have to be, to run such a scam in his search for sympathy and attention.

fayeroe2013
fayeroe2013

Victoria, if the hoax was 'pulled' on him, it shows an immaturity that is puzzling due to his 'wordly' associations with ND, etc. If he is a part of the hoax, it shows, as you said, that he has some really, REALLY serious issues and needs to get into therapy ASAP. If his family is on it, lord help us all!

Another thing that is puzzling to me, how on earth did publications like Sports Illustrated let this slip past them? Not one reporter was interested enough to do some background work? I thought SI was pretty credible..now, not so much.

fayeroe2013
fayeroe2013

 You cared enough to read the article and comment.

drudown
drudown

Ok, having looked into this a little more, I have to revise my assessment.

Namely, Te'o was on Jim Rome prating on and on about "falling asleep every night over the phone" with his Leukemia-plagued girlfriend. WTF? One hopes there is at least a real person there he is talking about- regardless of gender. If he just made up the whole thing for attention? Yeesh.

christophergrebe
christophergrebe

@lazarusbrands I understand the need to hide, especially as a mormon kid in a catholic school. But if he is in fact gay, or even if he's not and he either started this to get attention OR he was truly a victim of a hoax, doesn't really excuse his actions. Nor do they fill ins. I agree that this whole thing ( before the Deadspin article) grew legs of its own and probably out of control for a 21 year old kid to know how to fix it. I 100% understand that and I hope that the truth comes out, whether he be gay or whatever the thing is, and I think if he is in fact gay, he will be championed for it. If he tells all, I think a significant portion of America will support him and understand his story. Even if he comes clean and says I made it up for attention. Until that happens, and it may never, people will always speculate. Look at Lance Armstrong, Ray Lewis, Anderson Cooper, Pete Rose all of these people are or were bashed on boards, but when people own up to themselves, though I don't believe Ray Lewis murdered anyone, I think he does know more then he says he did. People will forgive. I don't think anyone wants to intenionally ruin this kids live. But it will follow him forever unless he ( if he truly knew something) owns up to it. 

drudown
drudown

@willyd61

that and/or he was trying to curry support for his Heisman award chances?

BebeWu
BebeWu

@willyd61 

perhaps, but with a heavy whiff of desperation turned to regret

Al3000
Al3000

@Nathaniel_M_Campbell - Because Lizzy Seeberg had problems stemming way back in high school.  She was known to get into ish or start ish that's why.  It's unfortunate that she took her own life but she couldn't handle the drama she herself caused.  So get the hell off the story all ready and move along...

BebeWu
BebeWu

@RobertSilverman 

which is precisely why it needs to be in the news as a warning to innocent surfers

Nathaniel_M_Campbell
Nathaniel_M_Campbell

That sounds about right for Notre Dame.  Blame the victim, but hold the football player sacrosanct.

KMC528
KMC528

@BebeWu @RobertSilverman 
Exactly.  When I first got divorced and was on several dating websites, I had a number of "penpals" who didn't show up when we arranged to meet in person.  At least none of them asked for money, but still very disturbing to know that there are people out there who play those mind games.

I recently joined a new dating website, and after exchanging a few brief messages with someone, with promises to chat longer when I had time after my end-of-year deadlines, when I tried to do that on Jan.2, all evidence of the person had disappeared from the site -- profile,  all our messages, etc.  There were a few oddities in language usage from someone supposedly born here, so I suspect the person was removed from the site as a scammer.

Clarkjohn
Clarkjohn

@ThomasForrestRitter

I think the school failed to provide her better support right away. That is undeniably true.

As far as the investigation goes, it collapsed because of inconsistencies in the story. The investigation was even reviewed federally and there was not a single thing thought to be wrong about it. Seeberg changed her story several times, had a history of making false claims of a similar nature, and was on medication for psychological/psychiatric reasons. And her parents have since reached out to ND...

The whole event is tragic, and I don't doubt that an ND player acted inappropriately in some manner. But saying that ND tried to "cover-up" a violent sexual assault is ridiculous... Moreover, if one is legitimately worried about women in the culture of men's college sports (as I am) they need to address the issue at large, not use this case as a chance to take a shot at ND out of jealousy/rivalry

fayeroe2013
fayeroe2013

I remember the case well and ND did not do enough and did work to discredit her. That, within itself, certainly goes along with the catholic church.

ThomasForrestRitter
ThomasForrestRitter

@Clarkjohn @Nathaniel_M_Campbell - Nathaniel does not seem to get the fact that ND sat on their hands as far as 'investigating' the assault allegation. He also does not seem to recognize that the only investigation done by ND during the time between the accusation and her suicide was focused on discrediting her. And finally, those who purport to be 'christians' can hardly respect any aspect of ND's public relations on either of these matters. Lies are still a sin, no?

Clarkjohn
Clarkjohn

@Nathaniel_M_Campbell  

Do you know anything about the case? I mean anything at all?

It was tragic and definitely mishandled by Notre Dame. No one is saying otherwise. But Seeberg did have a past history of making accusations, and she was taking drugs for documented mental issues. moreover, she nor any accuser, alleged anything more than groping. You're making it sound like Notre Dame overlooked and swept aside a rape case. That's not at all the case. And if you don't think every single university with a division 1 football program has an endemic problem with similar issues, you are fooling yourself just to rationalize your moral condemnation of Notre Dame. This is a culture of college football problem, not something we should be playing moralistic with.