Earlier this week, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o sat down for an interview with Katie Couric to discuss the craziest sports story of the young year. According to a Jan. 16 investigative report by the sports blog Deadspin, the tragic death of Te’o's girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, on the eve of his biggest game — and, in fact, Kekua’s very existence — were a complete fabrication. The exclusive interview, airing Thursday, will be Te’o’s first on-camera discussion of the fiasco since it began.
We already know that Te’o will talk about lying about his relationship after he reportedly discovered the hoax; that portion of the interview aired Wednesday on Good Morning America. We don’t know, however, what other parts of this dizzyingly complex story Couric will cover. Here are five questions we’d love to have answered:
Why did Te’o apparently never make any substantial effort to see his girlfriend, either in person or live over the internet? Te’o has been adamant about the depth and sincerity of his relationship with the woman he knew as Lennay Kekua, in spite of the fact that the two never met. ESPN reported yesterday that a source had provided them with a spreadsheet, indicating that Te’o “made and received more than 1,000 calls totaling more than 500 hours in length from the same number in the 661 area code” — a number he allegedly believed belonged to Kekua. The duration of several of the calls even support Te’o’s claims in an Oct. 1 Sports Illustrated article that he and Kekua would fall asleep while on the phone together after her hospitalization, first following a car accident and then with leukemia.
So how come Te’o apparently never asked to meet Kekua in person — or if he did, why didn’t he seem to press the issue? In a two-hour, off-camera interview with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap on Jan. 18, Te’o said any attempts at online video chat with Kekua resulted in him staring at a black screen. Even more curious is Te’o’s statement that, “It never really crossed [his] mind” to visit Kekua after her fictional hospitalizations. For that matter, it seems strange that Kekua—who discussed her relationship with the famous football star on Twitter—never asked to visit Te’o or requested he come see her.
How come nobody seemed to know about Lennay Kekua until after she’d died? The very existence of Te’o's hoax girlfriend appears to have been barely reported until after her death (although the same could be said for a lot of 22-year-old college students). But the volume of media coverage she and Te’o received after her supposed passing on Sept. 12, 2012 was remarkable. It was, of course, catnip for sports journalists — a tragic story of heartbreaking loss involving one of the most highly touted college athletes in the nation, especially coming as it did less than 24 hours after the death of Te’o's grandmother, Annette Santiago. In the following days and weeks, the media was fixated on the tragic circumstances surrounding Kekua’s death — at which point the couple’s backstory gained much of its texture and detail, including a fictional meet-cute at a Stanford-Notre Dame game in 2009 and visits by Kekua to Te’o during school holidays in Hawaii. Some of these details, Te’o told Schaap, he fabricated himself, out of embarrassment. But others he says did not, and it’s not clear why they only show up after Kekua’s “death,” a tragedy which reportedly helped spark Te’o's stunning performance in a Sept. 15 upset of Michigan State that propelled him to the top ranks of Heisman trophy contenders.
What efforts did Te’o make to find out all that he could about the hoax after realizing he’d been had? So far, the answer seems to be “not many.” In a press conference on the night that Deadpsin published its hoax story, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said that Te’o had received a phone call on Dec. 6 from a woman whose voice he had come to know as Kekua’s. During the call, Te’o says the woman claimed she had not actually died, but had faked her own death to elude drug dealers. Days later, however, Te’o continued to tell reporters she was dead, including in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: “[Kekua] made me promise, when [she died], that I would stay and play.” Te’o wasn’t totally blinkered by whomever was posing as Kekua — at one point he requested a photo from her with her initials and the date on it, which was later provided for him. He seems to have done little, however, to dissuade the media from writing about Kekua and waited nearly three weeks to inform Notre Dame officials of his suspicions. Te’o said at one point that he wasn’t even certain about the hoax until Jan. 16, the same day that the Deadspin story was published.
To what extent was Te’o connected to alleged hoaxter Ronaiah Tuiasosopo? Tuiasosopo, a singer and former high-school football player from California, is accused of being the creator of the “Lennay Kekua” persona and the mastermind behind the hoax. He also has some kind of personal connection to Te’o, having interacted with him numerous times via Twitter and having met the Heisman Trophy finalist when Notre Dame faced USC in November of last year. Te’o has said he believed Tuiasosopo to be a cousin of Kekua’s, but has indicated the two were far from close. That claim is belied somewhat by Deadspin’s report that Te’o plugged at least one of Tuiasosopo’s songs on Twitter and, according to a source, appeared in numerous photographs with him on a now-deleted Instagram account. Whatever the precise nature of their connection, direct messages sent to Te’o from a Twitter account allegedly belonging to Tuiasosopo appear to absolve the Notre Dame linebacker of complicity in the hoax.
If Deadspin had not published its story, would Te’o ever have come forward? While he was under no legal obligation to divulge what he had learned—or was in the process of learning—about the hoax he’d apparently fallen victim to, Te’o maintained the fiction of Lennay Kekua’s death for several weeks after realizing it was fake. He continued to repeat the story to the press even after the Dec. 6 phone call from the woman claiming to be Kekua. Then he waited nearly three weeks to inform his coaches and University of what he’d learned, which he did on Dec. 26. Finally, he and his representatives at the Creative Artists Agency indicated to Notre Dame that they would release the story on their own on Jan. 14 — two days before Deadspin published its report. That release never happened. Here’s hoping that in his conversation with Katie Couric, Te’o will be more forthcoming.