Trying To Untangle the Te’o Story

For the last 24 hours this has been just about all I’ve discussed amongst my friends and parents.  The only other topic that has come up is the Eagles hire of Chip Kelly, which on any other day would be the only topic discussed.  Instead we’re talking about, “The Notre Dame kid’s dead fake girlfriend.”

First let me say this, we still know so little about the story and with a lack of evidence to make any sort of concrete statement about what took place is wrong.  This story is so bizarre and such a mystery it’s like a maze with dozens of different entry points.  There is really no good place to start.  So at this point everything is just conjecture.  The lack of hard evidence lead us to this point in the first place.  I’ll do my best to make as much sense of it as I can right now and give what I think is the most likely scenario.  Again just conjecture. Bear with me.  My brain still hurts.

Instead of diving right into this it’s probably best to highlight the timeline of events, so here it goes.


Nov. 2009…..  Story in South Bend Tribune discussing how they met at Stanford game.

Jan. 2012……  Lenay Kekua’s alleged car accident and diagnosis of leukemia.

June. 2012…..  Kekua receives a bone marrow transplant according to Te’o’s father Brian.

Sept. 12 2012…….  Kekua was in good enough health to be released from the hospital…  Supposedly called Te’o’s parents to express her condolences for the loss of Te’o’s grandmother.  Hours later Te’o receives a text from the alleged brother of Lenay saying she had passed away.

Sept. 15 2012….  Michigan State game.  Marks the beginning of Heisman campaign.  Post game interview…

Sept. 22 2012….  Michigan game and Lenay’s funeral.  Supposedly Lenay made Te’o promise he wouldn’t leave campus if anything happened to her.

Oct. 2012…..  ESPN releases this piece.

Dec. 2012…  Te’o says he received a call from a number he thought was Lenay’s claiming that the entire story is a hoax.  Te’o supposedly informed his parents and the school at this time that he was duped by the individual.  Te’o goes on to win the Bednarik and Maxwell awards.  Two awards just a notch below the Heisman in terms of prestige.  T’eo also finishes second in Heisman voting.

Jan. 4 2013…  Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick says this is the date when an independent investigator confirmed the hoax.

Jan. 7 2013…..  Alabama waxes Notre Dame in South Beach….  AJ McCarron’s girlfriend is found to be a fox.

Jan. 16 2013…..  Deadspin lowers the boom and sends the internet and sports world into a meltdown..  Swarbrick gives a press conference on the situation.

Additional Pieces to the Puzzle

Te’o and Lenay communicated through Twitter and he claims they spoke on the phone each night.

The photos on her social media acounts are of a different California girl, who had never met Te’o.

Arizona Cardinals fullback Reagan Mauia says he had met Kekua before she and Te’o dated.

Te’o’s parents have said that Manti had met Lenay, but they themselves had not.

The twitter account was supposed set up by Roniah Tuiasosopo, a CA high school football player and friend of Te’o.  The Tuiasosopo family is to football what the Wayans family is to entertainment.

Confused yet?  Me too.  The two obvious questions here are, was Te’o in on the hoax and if so why?  Without having heard from Te’o, Tuiasosopo, or the person who supposedly contacted Te’o in December we have zero answers to those questions.  No press conference for Te’o has been set up at this time, but I have to imagine he’ll be addressing the issue at some point in the near future.  And until Te’o does speak we know very little.

Right now though what we know is that this was a colossal journalism fuck up and everyone is at fault.  ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and the AP all went ahead with this story despite the obvious red flags.  At no point in time did they call for a police report of Kekua’s alleged car accident, call Stanford Public Relations to confirm she was a student there, or find an obituary in the newspaper.  Te’o had told ESPN that he wanted to respect Kekua’s family’s wishes and not hand over any photos of her, the family contact info, or one of the weekly letters she wrote him.  That’s all well and good, and I can understand not questioning that, but calling the local police or hospital doesn’t involve the family in any way and it covers your ass.  Peter Thamel of SI does deserve some credit today though for publishing his transcript with Te’o and admitting that there were obvious red flags that he neglected.

What makes this aspect of the story more troubling is that this isn’t the first time that this has happened recently, when news outlets rely on one another to confirm sources instead of taking the time to get the facts correct.  Look at the reporting of the shooting of Congressman woman Gabrielle Gifford.  All majors news outlets, except Will McAvoy’s ACN, had reported that she had died based on NPR’s report.

We can attribute this to platforms like Twitter causing the news media to feel pressured to get the story out there as quickly as possible, but in the end the journalism community needs to do a better job.  Next time ESPN releases an emotional story similar to Te’o’s how am I expected to trust that ESPN has properly vetted the story?  This topic could get it’s own web page though so lets move on.

With so many questions swirling around obviously opinions have begun to be formed as to what happened exactly and if Te’o was involved what his motives were.  The first of the three most popular theories is that Te’o concocted this whole story to raise his public profile and increase his draft stock because of the leadership and strength he exhibited throughout the season despite the adversity.  The trouble with this theory is Te’o would have to be some devious mastermind to come up with this idea.  Furthermore the negative to this far exceeds the positive.  Best case scenario his draft stock sees a slight up tick and he wins the Heisman trophy.  Worst case scenario is what is unfolding, and NFL executives have already come out and said if he’s been lying the entire time his stock could plummet.

The second theory out there is that Te’o is gay and that this was the cover story he came up with to hide it.  It seems like a possibility, but there have go to be easier ways to go about this than coming up with such an elaborate lie leaving you exposed to scrutiny.

The third theory out there and the one that I think is the closest to the truth at least with the little information given is that Te’o was tricked into this online relationship by his friend, discovered it was a hoax, got embarrassed and tried to cover it up.  And in the process the story spun out of control as his national profile grew.

From everything we’ve heard about Te’o to this point paints a picture of an obvious target for a con.  Te’o came from a small community in Hawaii.  As if growing up on an island isn’t sheltered eough Te’o is also a Mormon, a religion that certainly known for being protective of their people.  Additionally all reports on Te’o’s personality are that he is socially kind of awkward and keeps to himself mostly.  With that knowledge Te’o looks to be as ripe a candidate as Bambi to be bamboozled by some internet prank.

You could easily convince me that when Te’o found out he had been conned he was utterly embarrassed and confided in his parents to help him out of the situation, which would explain his parents saying they had spoken to Kekua.

Where this theory start to come off the railing is when Arizona Cardinal fullback Reagan Mauia claimed to have met Kekua.  Also wouldn’t it have been easier for Te’o to just say they’d broken up instead of coming up with this story of her death?

Part of what makes this story so unique and interesting though is that it could only happen in this moment.  Facebook hasn’t even been around for 10 years and Twitter has become part of the popular culture within the last 3 years.  The internet as a whole is still kind of like the wild wild west, especially when it relates to social media.  Creating an identity online is as simple as creating an email address.  In 15 minutes you can have a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn profile, fill in the necessary information and all of a sudden you have an online identity.  It became so simple that Twitter had to utilize the blue check mark to identify high profile twitter accounts that had been verified.  As a result of this the journalism industry, like so many others, is still learning how to adapt to this new platform.

The big winner in this fiasco is, the sports arm of Gawker, that broke the story yesterday.  Deadspin was well known among sports nerds and anyone constantly trolling the internet for content.  But it wasn’t until last night when my own mom asked me what Deadspin was, and it wasn’t until this morning when I’d heard ESPN reference Deadspin by name.

The biggest loser of this story though is Manti Te’o and his fragile psyche.  If Te’o was involved in the fabrication he is going be scrutinized, poked, prodded, and the butt of endless jokes.  Within hours of the story being posted to Deadspin there was a tumblr account set up with photos of people “Te’oning.”  Te’oing is the act of taking a photo of yourself with your arm around your imaginary friend or eating allow with the seat across from you saved for your imaginary friend.

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 10.19.20 PM

The attitude of the internet in general can be fairly vicious.  Just two days ago I saw a tweet someone sent NBC’s Michelle Beadle wishing she’d get cancer.  I admit that it’s incredibly easy to be cynical and rude when hiding behind a computer, but on the subject of Te’o I think we’ve already taken it too far in 24 hours.

There was no real crime committed here and nobody really died like in the case of the OJ Simpson trial.  The story doesn’t involve adults behaving badly like the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan drama.  There are no children involved as there was in the case of Tiger Woods.  At the center of all of this is a 22 year old college kid.  Since there is no real crime people feel as if they have a free pass to light this kid up.  And don’t get me wrong, Deadspin’s article was entirely appropriate and well done.  It’s the post article blow back that I’m referring too.

I’ve already seen dozens of Meme’s, hundreds of jokes, and fake Sports Illustrated covers.  To be honest the best joke I’ve seen saw far came from the writer who broke the story, Jack Dickey, when he posted the article on Twitter and wrote, “This story marks the first time I ever got to tell my editor, “I think this goes all the way to Marques Tuiasosopo.”  That made me laugh out loud.  Most of the chatter though is just lazy and not that funny.

With every major story we look back to see what we can relate it most closely too.  As I said earlier the similarities don’t really match any previous sports story.  No crime was committed like in the case of OJ or Tonya.  This isn’t  like the Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong case either.  To find the closest example to this we need to look to the music industry.  If you were born before 1983 you have a pretty good idea of who I’m referring too, German pop duo Milli Vanilli.

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 10.50.10 PM

Milli Vanilli gained notoriety for their hit single, “Girl You Know Its True.”  It’s an absolutely awesome song, and I still listen to it today.  The trouble though was that neither Milli nor Vanilli (Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus) were the people actually singing on the track.  But their song kept gaining traction, and their fame continued to grow until they reached the tipping point and won a Grammy for best new artist in 1990.

If you watch their VH1 Behind the Music that I posted below you’ll see the similarities.  Football players are a lot like singers.  Both types are entertainers.  Both are looking for fame and fortune.  Both can be easily manipulated.  Neither one broke any real laws, and when they got caught everyone piled on.

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 10.52.35 PM

The whole fiasco started as a small lie, because the two wanted to gain some fame, snowballed to a point that they couldn’t control the story, and when they got caught the backlash was enormous.  So much so that it destroyed both of them for the rest of their lives, to the point that Rob Pilatus eventually committed suicide.  I’m not saying Te’o is going follow the same path.  From the sound of things Te’o unlike Milli Vanilli has a great support system, but I do worry that this kid’s life from here on out is going be torturous and he’s only 22.  He’s got a lot of life ahead of him.

As I said at the beginning with so few answers so much of this is still conjecture.  Hopefully Te’o comes out and speaks soon, and best case scenario he really was duped the entire time.  It sounds unlikely, but with this story who knows.  As we’ve learned with this story and others, once the internet train starts it’s impossible to slow down.  I know I’ll make a joke about the situation this weekend when discussing the story with my friends, it’s too good to pass up, but don’t lose sight of the fact that at the heart of this story is a 22 year old kid.

Behind The Music:  Milli Vanilli

Behind the Music – Milli Vanilli from jason goodman on Vimeo.

Advanced Reading

Podcast of Mac King (@MackenzieWKing) and Nathan Scott discussing Te’o.  These are professionals.  Encourage all to listen to it.

Washington Post article by Melinda Henneberger eviscerating Notre Dame.  Must read.

Sports Illustrated transcript of the T’eo interview.  Red flags all over

Klosterman & Gladwell discussion on the story.  People 1,000,000X smarter than myself.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s