Manti Te’o, Catfish, Notre Dame, social media, online dating.
On the sixteenth day of the two thousandth and thirteenth year of the calendar that we recognize, the first occurrence of an online/social media “dating” mega story within the world of sports appeared in front of our eyes. In appropriate new age fashion the story broke on a blog (Deadspin), was discussed on Twitter, and then made its way to the side scroll of SportsCenter. Within two hours the story supplanted the hiring of Chip Kelly by the Philadelphia Eagles as the lead story across the realm of sports. Within two hours the story wiped away any momentum Oprah’s interview with Lance Armstrong still had.
Why was this story such a hot button issue?
Because, we’ve never seen anything like this.
At 4:10 pm on Wednesday, Deadspin posted a story that would grab a million pairs of eye balls in just two hours. It almost seemed too unbelievable to be true, but it is indeed a fact that Lennay Kekua, the 22 year old who supposedly survived a car accident, graduated from Stanford, and died from Leukemia (all in the same year) was a fictional character. Her existence was as made up as an imaginary friend, but there is nothing imaginary about what her presence did for Manti Te’o.
As Notre Dame rose from the depths of the unranked to the top of the BCS poll, Manti Te’o became the face of the Irish’s renaissance year. ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo!, and every other major sports outlet called South Bend to request time with Te’o because his story was as polarizing as his play was on the field.
The public perception of Te’o was of a young warrior who unleashed the force of his pent up rage on the gridiron. The fuel that fired that force came from a short time frame early on in the season when multiple tragedies took place in Te’o’s life. In 48 hours (Sept. 11th-12th) his grandmother died of a longtime illness and his embattled girlfriend “lost her fight” with leukemia. Not soon after the worldwide leader in sports called about doing a segment with Te’o on one of their most popular shows (College Gameday). The interview would air the day of the Michigan State-Notre Dame game. It turned out to be perfect timing as the Irish would pull off the upset in East Lansing on national television. A star was born.
It took the combination of the school’s first 4-0 start in a decade, the downfall of Geno Smith’s Heisman campaign, and that ESPN story for Manti Te’o to begin his push towards immortality. As the season progressed Notre Dame’s wins became more and more celebrated, as did Te’o. His two interceptions against Michigan switched the complexion of the game. His interception of Landry Jones on ABC’s national game of the weekend was replayed 323421 times in a week. In a very short period of time he became the most popular player in college football until Johnny Football rolled over the Tide and went on to lift the 40 pound Heisman trophy. Te’o’s consolation prize was a chance to play for the national championship. It would end up being the last time we got to see that version of Manti Te’o.
As his defense was getting thrown around by AJ McCarron in the national title game, the talk of Te’o’s draft stock dominated the Notre Dame talking points on social media. Even with the poor performance against ‘Bama, the consensus was the mid-first round for the young Hawaiian. Obviously he still had to show up at the combine and put in a good pro-day, but Mel Kiper was sure to put him in the first round of his mock drafts. It was fun to talk about his potential because that’s what we do as a sports society. We love trying to predict the future, but no one in the public could have seen the curveball that was coming.
A couple months ago MTV began airing a show entitled Catfish. Nev Schulman, the show’s host, documents the initial interaction between people who have had online relationships for years without physically meeting. It’s based off of a documentary in which Nev documents his own online relationship and the encounter with the woman he ends up meeting. Based on the girl’s Facebook in the movie, Nev believed he is going to meet an attractive 25 year old woman, it turned out that the woman behind the Facebook was a 40 something year old housewife that couldn’t let go of her past and therefore created fake personas as a release valve. Over the handful of episodes that have aired so far, not one meeting has went smoothly.
Based off of Manti’s released statement it appears that he was Catfished:
“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. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating. It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother’s death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life. I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been. In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was. Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I’m looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft.”
There are two different ways this story is going to play out. Either Te’o is telling the truth and he really did share eight hour phone conversations with Lennay Kekua that ended with him waking up to the sound of her voice.
Or this was all just a fabrication by Te’o, his father, and Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. According to the Deadspin report Tuiasospo created the twitter account associated with Kelua and was in on the hoax.
It seems like the more questions that are asked, the more fishy the story becomes: How is it possible for Te’o to supposedly meet Kelua, IN PERSON, in 2009 after Notre Dame played Stanford, according to Te’o’s father? Why not Skype with the person so you can actually SEE a live video of the person that you have an emotional relationship with? If your serious girlfriend was in a life or death battle with leukemia how could you not go and visit her? Why did you not attend her funeral? Why was your father feeding information to the media? At any point did you look in the mirror and say, this sounds too good to be true? While you’re looking in the mirror are you happy with the person that is looking back at you?
Your story resonated within people who don’t even care for Notre Dame. That College Gameday segment played with our emotions better than the way Dave Grohl plays drums. Even though we as sports fans love violence every weekend during the fall, we’re secretly a sucker for a good story. We’ll suspend belief (the summer* of McGuire and Sosa), turn a blind eye (Lance Armstrong), and give you a second chance if you give us a little more personality (Kobe, Tiger). The thing is no one knows what to make of this story quite yet because it’s hard to admit when we fall for something that seems too good to be true.
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