Whether you're a sports fan or not, it's hard not to stare slack-jawed at the very curious saga of Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o and Lennay Kekua, his late girlfriend who doesn't actually exist. The story of the love affair captured the nation's attention from the time of the couple's storied meeting after a Stanford-Notre Dame football game through to Kekua lost battle with leukemia, as Te'o stayed brave and led his team to the national championship game. But after Deadspin revealed on Wednesday night that it was all a hoax, Te'o had some explaining to do.
In a statement, Te'o admitted that he did not meet Kekua after a football game but rather online, where he was drawn into an elaborate scam. "To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating," said Te'o. "In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious."
At a press conference after the story went viral Wednesday night, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said that "this was exclusively an online relationship" but that it was "Manti's story to tell and he is going to tell it," indicating that Te'o might provide further details soon.
But was Te'o actually the victim of a hoax? Or was he the mastermind of a swindle, peddling a fake story about a fake girlfriend to win fans as he contended for the Heisman trophy as some have suggested. It's tough to say, and it will surely take some time to sort out what actually happened. There's evidence for both theories, which we've collected in a handy digest to help you get the story straight.
Te'o was a victim
The statements: Both Te'o and Notre Dame have released statements denying foul play on the part of the 21-year-old football star. Te'o said that he "grew to care deeply" about Kekua and described the entire experience as "trying and confusing." Notre Dame called the hoax "a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators" and launched an investigation, the results of which they will not publish.
The media coverage: Throughout the course of Te'o's three-year-long relationship with Kekua, the media reported on the details, from the fake meeting to a fake car crash that Kekua was in before she contracted leukemia. Everybody covered the relationship: The South Bend Tribune, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, The Associated Press, The Los Angeles Times. Surely if Te'o were making the whole thing up, some reporter would've contacted Kekua or caught an inconsistency in Te'o's story.
The social media history: As Deadspin explains, there's a long trail of updates on Facebook and Twitter from Kekua, or whomever was pretending to be her, and her sister. We're not talking about a handful of updates, either. We're talking thousands. Faking social media accounts is obviously possible, but it's not easy. It's hard to imagine Te'o would've had the time not only to go to class, practice and games and update his own accounts but also maintain the existence of Kekua and her sister. Of course, he could've had help.
Te'o was the mastermind
The incentive: Ambitious to make it to the NFL, Te'o surely knew that the heartbreaking story of a girlfriend's tragic death in the middle of the football season would win over the hearts of the voting committee and fans, who collectively have one vote through an ESPN poll.
The web of connections: It would be easier to believe that Te'o got duped if he didn't have so many connections to other people implicated in the hoax. The woman in the pictures that were supposed to show Kekua told Deadspin that one of them had never been online. She'd given it to Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who happens to be a friend of Te'o. Tuiasosopo was also in a car accident just a month before Kekua's alleged accident. Sources told Deadspin that Tuiasosopo was the one behind the Kekua character, a theory that solves the conundrum of how Te'o had time to post all of the updates on social networks.
The telephone calls: Te'o said that he talked to Kekua on the phone every night. If he was indeed a victim of a hoax, there must have been a woman on the other end of the line. So far, there's been no evidence that this woman exists.
The media coverage: It is hard to believe that so many news outlets reported on Te'o's relationship without actually confirming Kekua's existence. Nobody even bothered to try and find her non-existant obituary. But as The Huffington Post's Michael Calderone points out, the "herd mentality of the media" means that journalists fall in love with stories and lose track of their fact-checking. Calderone said, "It's understandable that journalists may not have double-checked" specific details.
Common Sense: It's more than a little bit unbelievable that a 21-year-old football star would meet a woman online and fall in love with her over the phone without ever meeting her. It's not impossible. But it's pretty unbelievable.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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