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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Bizarre Manti Te’o tale validates my cynical nature

In this Sept. 15, 2012 photo, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o points to the sky as he leaves the field after a 20-3 win against Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich. In a shocking announcement, Notre Dame said Te'o was duped into an online relationship with a woman whose "death" from leukemia was faked by perpetrators of an elaborate hoax. (AP Photo/South Bend Tribune, James Brosher) MANDATORY CREDIT

In my quieter moments, I sometimes wonder why I’m so cynical. Trust me, the thought always passes, but I have asked myself why I can’t get on board the way other people can.

Why couldn’t I, a cancer survivor, concentrate on all the good work Lance Armstrong was doing in the fight against the disease? (Because the money he raised was built on a steaming pile of lies and syringes.)

Why was I so quick to cast doubt on a 16-year-old swimmer who won an Olympic gold medal by swimming her final leg faster than the men’s champion did in the same event? (Because the sport’s dirty history demands doubt.)

Why couldn’t I have celebrated Tim Tebow as a good kid instead of dwelling on the fact he’s a below-average quarterback? (Because being a good quarterback, not a Tebowing proselytizer, is sort of the whole idea in the NFL.)

Why couldn’t I trust college-football coaches when so many fans think college football is just about the greatest thing there is? (Because most of the coaches turn out to be like the latest snake, new Eagles boss Chip Kelly, late of the University of Oregon.)

Why do I have to question everything? (You mean like I am right now?)

Then the Manti Te’o story comes along, and my faith in cynicism is renewed.

By now, you’ve likely heard the head-scratching news: Lennay Kekua, the girlfriend of Notre Dame’s All-American linebacker who died of leukemia in September — the woman who launched 1,000 heartfelt stories about the grieving star — never existed. The school and Te’o say he was the victim of a hoax.

It’s a bizarre tale that raises twice as many questions as it answers.

Why did Te’o refer to Kekua as his “girlfriend’’ if the two of them, as Notre Dame’s athletic director says, had never met?

Why did Te’o’s father say his son and Kekua occasionally met in Hawaii?

If Te’o were so devoted to Kekua, why didn’t he visit her in the hospital or go to her wake/funeral?

Why did Te’o continue to talk about her publicly after he became aware of the hoax?

A former teammate told ESPN, that Fighting Irish players knew the woman wasn’t Te’o’s girlfriend, thought Te’o had met her just once and believed that the linebacker played along with the story as it became bigger.

Here is what I have come to believe after 30 years of doing what I do: The first instinct, the instinct not to swallow what is being ladled out to you, is usually the right one. Especially at places such as Notre Dame, where the narrative is built on a warm cushion of mythology, never mind the dead football videographer or the girl who committed suicide after accusing a Notre Dame player of sexually assaulting her.

I don’t always feel good about the way I am, but I’m glad more often that not that I am skeptical and cynical. When you view people as human, you’re a lot less likely to be hoodwinked or disappointed.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t have fallen for the Te’o story. If I had sat down with him and he had talked about his deceased girlfriend, I would have written that column without a second thought. And I can’t think of a reason I would have questioned his story.

I had the opportunity to write about Te’o’s last home game in November, but had an immediate aversion to it. There was something too much about it. Too many adoring fans. Too Hollywood an ending. Too Notre Dame. I wrote about the Irish’s road to the national title game instead.

Why the cynicism? Because I believe we’ve gone so far in building up athletes that they’re almost unrecognizable as human beings.

Have you ever met someone who is completely honest, loyal, nonjudgmental, understanding, sensitive, giving, patient, selfless and gracious? Neither have I. Even the people we most like, appreciate and look up to have their shortcomings. That’s because they’re human.

But then I hear Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick refer to Te’o as “the single most trusting human I’ve ever met.’’

Isn’t it funny that whenever a coach, GM or athletic director talks about someone as “the nicest” or “the smartest” or the something-est, it invariably is the best player on the team? It’s never the ball boy or the student manager or the third-string center. Why do we feel the need to heap superlatives on someone who, because of ­genetics, can jump higher or run faster than other people?

We really, really wanted to believe the story about Te’o’s ­girlfriend, didn’t we?

Better to approach sports with an arched eyebrow. You’ll save yourself a lot of pain.

Who’s Who in the Manti Te’o 
Fake Dead Girlfriend Scandal

Manti Te'oThe story of the celebrated Notre Dame linebacker whose tragic story turned out to be a hoax has captured the nation’s attention. Here’s a guide to the major players in the scandal, real and otherwise:

Manti Te’o

A star Notre Dame linebacker who helped the Irish to a nearly undefeated season, Manti Te’o was a respected student with a tragic personal story: the deaths of his grandmother and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, in early September, which only helped him play harder. That is, however, until an investigation by the sports blog Deadspin revealed that Kekua never existed.  Te’o reportedly spoke at length about his relationship with her, how they would write letters and talk on the phone while she fought leukemia after surviving a serious car accident. Te’o's family even referred to her as their potential daughter-in-law. But now Teo says he’s the victim of a hoax: In a statement following Deadspin’s investigation, Te’o says he “developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online,” which contradicts a previously reported story that Te’o and Kekua met after a Stanford-Notre Dame football game in Palo Alto.

Lennay Kekua

The supposed girlfriend of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o, Kekua was reportedly a student at Stanford who had met the linebacker after a Stanford-Notre Dame game in 2009. In April, 2012, soon after the two began dating, Kekua was injured in a car crash; later, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Sports Illustrated reported that Te’o would call Kekua in the hospital, and he told ESPN that she wrote him letters when she was sick. Kekua reportedly died Sept. 11 or Sept. 12, within hours of the death of Te’o's grandmother, Annette Santiago.

But according to Deadspin, there is no Social Security Administration record of Kekua’s death, nor are there any obituary or funeral announcements in any newspapers. The Stanford student newspaper didn’t mention her, and the registrar’s office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There are no reports of car accidents involving Kekua and no record of her birth. Photographs identified as Kekua in news reports and online are pictures from the social media accounts of another woman who has never met Te’o.

Though the South Bend Tribune reported that the couple met after a football game outside Palo Alto, Deadspin reports that the first interaction between Te’o and Kekua was on Twitter, when @MTeo_5 tweeted at @lovalovaloveYOU that it was nice to meet her.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Te’o said he had met Kekua online and had only communicated with her online and by phone.

Koa Kekua

Lennay Kekua’s older brother, according to a Sports Illustrated cover story on Manti Te’o, although further reports are mixed. SI (which, like TIME and TIME.com, is owned by Time Warner) referred to him as “Kainoa” Kekua in a Bowl Championship Series preview article about Te’o. In a Jan. 17 post on SI.com, in which journalist Peter Thamel shared the transcripts of his interviews with Te’o in the aftermath of Deadspin’s exposé, Koa is referred to as “Noa,” and is identified as Lennay’s twin brother. It was Koa, Te’o told Sports Illustrated according to Thamel’s transcript, who broke the news that Lennay had died:

“I remember I went to class and went to workouts and after workouts, right before I was about to come into meetings, I got a text message from her phone but it was her brother. Every time her brother texts me he just says, ‘Bro.’ I was like, ‘Why is her brother texting me?’ Then I get a phone call from her older brother’s phone. He’s just crying. And immediately I felt like, ‘Oh my Gosh, what just happened.’ And then he told me, ‘She’s gone bro.’”

U’ilani Rae Kekua

Reportedly the sister of Lennay Kekua. Te’o publicly tweeted at U’ilani’s Twitter account, welcoming her to the social media network, on Nov. 4; her account also tweeted memorial messages at Lennay’s Twitter following her supposed death. According to TMZ, a die-hard Notre Dame supporter who only wanted to be identified as “Jan” reportedly met U’ilani through Twitter; when she tried to arrange a meeting at the Nov. 24 Notre Dame-USC game, she was instead met by a former high school football star and apparent friend of the Te’o family named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who told her Jan was unable to attend the game. According to TMZ:

Jan tells us Ronaiah was with a little girl during the USC meeting who they called Pookah – and together, they explained how Lennay’s sister couldn’t come down to visit, so U’ilani sent them instead. Jan says Ronaiah “made it seem as if he was a member of Lennay’s family.”

After two other Twitter users made comments alleging the U’ilani account was fake and operated by the person behind the Lennay account, the U’ilani account immediately disappeared. Deadspin identified the woman in photos of U’ilani as Donna Tei, who reportedly has family connections to Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.

Ronaiah Tuiasosopo

A star football player as a student at Paraclete High in Lancaster, Calif., Tuiasosopo, now 22, leads the church band at Oasis Christian Church of the Antelope Valley, where his father is pastor, and posts his performances of secular and religious songs online. Tuiasosopo, according to Deadspin, comes from a prominent football family — among his relatives are former NFL defensive lineman Manu Tuiasosopo and NFL guard Fred Matua, who died last August at age 28 from heart-related issues. Tuiasosopo knows Te’o, at least somewhat; the Notre Dame football star retweeted him in May 2012 and wished him a happy birthday in June. Tuiasosopo tweeted about having a “great night with my bro @MTeo_5″ on Nov. 23, after allegedly attending a Notre Dame-USC game as an on-field guest.

According to Deadspin, in December 2012, Tuiasosopo asked his classmate, identified by the pseudonym “Reba,” to take a picture of herself for his cousin, who he said had been in a car accident and thought she was pretty. Reba obliged, and the photo later appeared as the profile image on a Twitter account allegedly belonging to Lennay Kekua. When Reba called Tuiasosopo to see how her photo had ended up there, he ”immediately began acting weird,” she told Deadspin; the photo was removed moments after they spoke.

Tuiasosopo was also in a car accident a month before Kekua’s alleged accident, Deadspin reported. The blog claimed that Tuiasosopo had created the fake online pesona of Lennay Kekua as early as 2008, and is likely behind  those of Koa and U’ilani Rae Kekua as well.


A pseudonymous source for the Jan. 16 article on the sports blog Deadspin that exposed the alleged hoax, who claimed to be familiar with both Manti Te’o and Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. “Frieda” told Deadspin that in December 2012, she had suggested on Twitter that things didn’t quite add up with Te’o's alleged girlfriend, Lennay Kekua. She said Tuiasosopo and Te’o were “family, or at least family friends,” and that the Tuiasosopos had been on-field guests at a Nov. 24 Notre Dame-USC game in Los Angeles. The University of Southern California could not confirm this, but Tuiasosopo reportedly tweeted on Nov. 23, “Great night with my bro @MTeo_5! #Heisman #574L” — suggesting the two saw each other during Te’o's trip to L.A. Tuiasosopo’s Twitter account has since been deleted.


A pseudonymous source for Deadspin‘s article, “Reba” says she is the woman whose photographs the Lennay Kekua account used as its own. After identifying the woman, Deadspin contacted her and broke news of the investigation. Reba, who lives in Torrance, Calif., told Deadspin she was horrified to learn she was a part of the apparent hoax. Whoever produced Kekua’s Twitter account had lifted photos from Reba’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, Deadspin reports, although they appeared to have been altered enough to prevent reverse image searches from making the connection. One photograph, however, hadn’t been published on social media: a picture of Reba holding up a sign that read “MSMK” that she took at the request of her former classmate, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. He said the photo was for his cousin, an admirer of Reba. According to Deadspin, friends and family of Tuiasosopo believe he is most likely behind the Lennay account.

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