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?