Manti Te'o's Dead Girlfriend a Hoax

5 years ago

There is one thing clear about Notre Dame quarterback Manti Te'o's deceased girlfriend, Lennay Kekua after a day of frenzied news reports. 

She never existed.

Heismann Trophy runner-up Te'o got big press and an outpouring of fan and colleague support after losing his grandmother, Annette Santiago, and, it was believed at the time, Kekua, on September 12, just hours apart. Three days later, he led Notre Dame to a 20-3 victory over Michigan State, then an undefeated season. Despite Notre Dame's loss to Alabama in the BCS final, Te'o was expected to be a top pick in the NFL draft.

Manti Te'o via

Things went off the rails in the most bizarre of ways today, with a Deadspin report that Lennay Kekua never existed. (Co-writer Jack Dickey, hasn't even graduated from college yet..)

The article included a detailed timeline of the couple's relationship, now assumed to be fictitious. Dickey and Timothy Burke suggest that Te'o acquaintance Ronaiah Tuiasosopo is the fictitious Lennay, according to sources. This has not been confirmed.

There was no Lennay Kekua. Lennay Kekua did not meet Manti Te'o after the Stanford game in 2009. Lennay Kekua did not attend Stanford. Lennay Kekua never visited Manti Te'o in Hawaii. Lennay Kekua was not in a car accident. Lennay Kekua did not talk to Manti Te'o every night on the telephone. She was not diagnosed with cancer, did not spend time in the hospital, did not engage in a lengthy battle with leukemia. She never had a bone marrow transplant. She was not released from the hospital on Sept. 10, nor did Brian Te'o congratulate her for this over the telephone. She did not insist that Manti Te'o play in the Michigan State or Michigan games, and did not request he send white flowers to her funeral. Her favorite color was not white. Her brother, Koa, did not inform Manti Te'o that she was dead. Koa did not exist. Her funeral did not take place in Carson, Calif., and her casket was not closed at 9 a.m. exactly. She was not laid to rest.

Lennay Kekua's last words to Manti Te'o were not "I love you."

In a rare crossing of topic streams, sports and mainstream Twitter went berserk with this story shortly after it posted yesterday afternoon.  

At just after 5 p.m. Wednesday, Notre Dame Assistant Vice President Dennis Brown released this statement on Facebook, indicating that Te'o was the victim of a hoax by a person pretending to be Kekua:

On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia. The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.

SBNation's list of news outlets that didn't search to see if Lennay Kekua actually existed includes The Associated Press, the Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times, among other top-tier newspapers and websites. 

They also report that Notre Dame teammates had doubts about Te'o's phone/Twitter-only relationship, but didn't want to challenge him. 

This ESPN video report is labeled as a Michael Wilbon/Tony Kornheiser Pardon the Interruption reaction to the news, but is actually a detailed account of Te'o's relationship with Kekua and some reactions, including interview footage with him, narrated by reporter Lindsay Czarniak.

Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said that nothing he has learned since he received this news on December 27 has caused him to think any differently of Te'o.

Video of Swarbrick's press conference on Bleacher Report.

Swarbrick also compared what he says happened to Te'o to the documentary "Catfish," that focused on online relationships with people who aren't who they say they are. Filmmaker Ariel Schulman's brother Nev, on whose fraudulent online relationship the film is partially based, had this to say on Twitter tonight:

Deadspin's takedown called the woman whose pictures were represented as Lennay "Reba," saying she was horrified that her photos -- including some never published on the internet -- were used to represent a person who never existed.

Manti, meanwhile, released a statement in near tandem with his higher-ups, insisting that, for a change, he got played.

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," Te'o said in the statement. "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... 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.


Notre Dame claims that they hired private investigators to get to the bottom of the hoax, but have released no details from that investigation.

Okay, so Notre Dame is on his side, and Te'o claims he was victimized. But what of articles in the South Bend Tribune that indicate he'd spent time with Lennay in Hawaii, and how does that translate to being swindled by a woman you've never met? How does a college student date someone seriously for three years in a time of 24/7 connectivity, and not have, at least, regular electronic face-to-face correspondence with her? How does that girlfriend survive a car wreck only to suffer from cancer for a long period of time, with no strong involvement from the man who calls her his soulmate? If Te'o lied, why?

Hard to say. But journalism outlets like ESPN and CBSSports have to answer to the fact that they ran what they called direct quotes from a woman named Lennay Kekua without checking on, much less considering the source. And once again, we're reminded that just because it's on Twitter, doesn't mean it's true.

Contributing Editor Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites

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