A touching story that captivated the sports world last fall was an elaborate social media-fueled hoax involving the fictitious illness and death of a beautiful young woman, who was allegedly the girlfriend of one of college football’s biggest stars.
The only remaining question: Was Notre Dame Heisman Trophy candidate Manti Te’o the victim or the perpetrator of the deeply sophisticated case of stolen identify and fake death?
A Facebook post by the Notre Dame football program and statement released by Te’o both say he was unaware of the scam until late December.
The lies were exposed on Wednesday by the sports blog Deadspin, which reported the girlfriend never existed. She never died and she never lived. The photos associated with her social media activity were reportedly, in fact, stolen from an account of a 22-year-old California woman who was oblivious to the whole thing.
Here’s the backstory: Te’o said he began dating a young woman named Lennay Kekua in early 2012. in September, he learned of her death following a car accident and subsequent leukemia diagnosis, nearly at the same time he was told his grandmother had died as well.
Burdened by grief, Te’o still played spectacularly this season and led Notre Dame back to glory and a spot in this year’s BCS national title game. Along the way, fans were touched by many tweets he sent to the supposedly deceased Kekua’s Twitter account:
@lennaykay I miss you!
— Manti Te’o (@MTeo_5) November 7, 2012
Tales of Te’o’s heroism in the face of tragedy were published by multiple national news outlets including Sports Illustrated, ESPN and CBS.
Deadspin‘s long report hit the sports web like a bombshell on Wednesday, immediately sparking multiple worldwide Twitter trends as stunned fans reacted to the news.
Dennis Brown, Notre Dame’s assistant vice president, soon posted a message to the Notre Dame Football Facebook Page — which has more than 350,000 online fans — saying that Te’o had not perpetrated any hoax. He was, in fact, the victim of an evil and cold-hearted deception by other people, Brown wrote:
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.
That post quest was shared more than 850 times in just over half an hour, with many commenters expressing skepticism about its veracity and calling it little more than cynical spin. Te’o soon released a statement of his own, professing his innocence and calling the entire episode “painful and humiliating.”
At a minimum, the twisted and bizarre tale raises a bevy of followup questions: Was Te’o in on the scam? Why? How did he think it was possible to not get discovered? If he was in fact the victim here, how did the people targeting him not expect to eventually get caught? And how could someone who never existed fool a real-live person when the two had supposedly met in person?
Give us your take in the comments.
Image credit Getty Images/Getty Images Sport/Jonathan Daniel