This country’s most inspirational sportsman is exposed as a cheat. Two of the greatest players in baseball history are denied entry into the Hall of Fame because they are cheats. The NFL spends the first three weeks of the season using fake referees. A college football powerhouse admits to switching uniform numbers and deflating footballs.
Into a sports world filled with deceit stepped Manti Te’o with a story too good to be true, too necessary to be questioned.
A senior Notre Dame linebacker leads America’s most traditional football program to its first unbeaten season in 24 years while playing for the memory of a dead girlfriend. It was a modern-day win for the Gipper. It was tear-stained pages torn from a “Rudy” script.
Te’o preached it. Notre Dame nurtured it. The mainstream media bought it. A stadium full of emotional fans wearing No. 5 jerseys and brightly colored leis cheered it.
Now that Deadspin.com has exposed the girlfriend as an Internet fabrication, the sad joke is on everyone, its impact illuminating the potholes on the modern sports landscape. The story of the phony Lennay Kekua is not only a story of a lie, but a truth, that today’s sports teams create myths that fans are desperate to swallow and journalists are too stretched and hurried to debunk.
The story of Te’o’s girlfriend should be a wake-up call to all those who would intentionally or unwittingly perpetuate those myths. It should be an alarm in every newsroom, locker room and boardroom where sports stars are bought, shaped and sold. It is a sobering reminder that beyond the final score and statistics, there are no gods, only the usual humans, whose heroic tales are not above scrutiny, and whose perception is often as devised and schemed as a fourth-down reverse.
The narrative of Te’o’s season was beyond storybook. It began in the second week of September, with the factual news that his grandmother, Annette Santiago, had died after a long illness shortly before his girlfriend Kekua died of leukemia. In the wake of this, instead of returning home for the funerals, Te’o led the Fighting Irish to a victory at Michigan State. Then, a week later, in an emotional game in front of thousands of lei-wearing fans honoring Te’o’s Hawaiian heritage, he led the Irish to a win against Michigan.
By then, the narrative had picked up enough steam to put Te’o on the cover of Sports Illustrated while pushing him into the middle of the Heisman Trophy race, where he remained until finishing second to Texas A&M;'s Johnny Manziel. In many interviews that included emotional talk about the loss of his girlfriend, he became one of this country’s most beloved college football players, not to mention a future millionaire and pitchman. His public perception was so strong, many thought he could even lead the Irish to an upset victory over Alabama in the BCS championship game. On the day of the game, CBS even ran a three-minute story about Lenny Kekua that included an inspirational message she sent to Te’o before her death.
The Crimson Tide later blasted Notre Dame, 42-14, while Te’o virtually disappeared. He spent the night either missing tackles or being flattened by Alabama linemen, raising questions about his focus that were perhaps answered this week. Turns out, a couple of weeks before the game, Te’o told Notre Dame that he had been informed his girlfriend never existed, that the back story of his season had been false, that he had been the victim of a hoax.
This is where this mess begins, in the sincere eyes of a handsome star whose public appearances had been filled with the deepest of stares and saddest of tears. In a prepared response to the Deadspin story, Te’o said he had been victimized by somebody who created the online persona of Kekua to fool and embarrass him.
“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,” he said in the statement, later adding, “To realize I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.”
Yet the surrounding facts make this deniability hard to believe. That this woman didn’t exist could have been hidden in an online relationship, but Te’o frequently presented it as more than that. There are numerous examples of Te’o talking about meeting the girl. His father has even been quoted about her visiting him. Nothing makes sense, other than the truly sad possibility that Te’o was involved in creating the girlfriend to enhance his story and help his Heisman chances.
Notre Dame also says it is a victim here, but that is also a dubious claim. When one of your college-age players tells a personal story that becomes a symbol for your entire program, shouldn’t you check it out? If this girl is going to become your Gipper, don’t you want to know who she is? Wouldn’t you do a background check on someone featured so prominently in your public image? If nothing else, wouldn’t you call the deceased girl’s family offering condolences, at which point you might start to ask questions?
There are so many ways Notre Dame could have figured this out, but it apparently didn’t try very hard. Worse yet, even after Te’o told school officials it was a hoax, they kept quiet through the BCS title game, with officials standing silently while reporters continued to ask Te’o about a woman they knew did not exist.
The mainstream media might also feels like a victim here, and that’s also a misguided view. The mainstream media could have ended this before it started. In all the stories written about Te’o and Kekua, including two in The Times, where were the story-enhancing attempts to reach her parents or her friends? Even the most cynical reporters might not question her death, but there was a time when even the most novice reporters would not file a story without adding voices from Kekua’s camp confirming Te’o’s devotion. There was a time when editors would not have accepted such a one-sided story. In such basic reporting, the fraud would have been eventually uncovered.
But in today’s 24-hour news cycle, with decreased staffing and constant deadline pressure, there is little time and space and manpower for such research. The national media had little time but to glance at the definitive first stories from Sports Illustrated or the South Bend Tribune and run with them.
When reporters wondered about Kekua’s family members, Te’o asked them to respect the family’s privacy. Everyone complied. Who was going to betray a kid in pain? In doing Te’o’s bidding, everyone failed to do their jobs, from the folks under the golden dome to the ones under the masthead. Perhaps the lesson here can be extrapolated from the cardboard sign waved by an Alabama fan at the BCS title game.
“Rudy was offsides,” it read.
Maybe he wasn’t, but you better double check.