Both Notre Dame and Manti Te'o have been quick to explain away a now viral story by insisting that the star linebacker was the "perfect mark," the victim of an elaborate hoax played out by multiple perpetrators who concocted a fake and eventually dead girlfriend in what was "exclusively an online relationship." But whether you believe them or not, the explanations fail to cover all of the relationship's tracks: What made Te'o so vulnerable to the alleged deception? Why did his parents buy in? If Notre Dame knew he was a victim, why didn't the school say anything? And why did Te'o keep speaking out in public about Lennay Kekua after Notre Dame officials say even they had found out? Here's a look at the questions that Te'o may have to answer for himself — he reportedly bailed on an ESPN interview today — even with a very interested audience already trying to fill in the blanks:
Te'o Gives in to the Lie, but Why?
Manti Te'o, whether he knew it or not, was deep into the lies — as Sports Illustrated's just released interview transcript shows, the details on his girlfriend were not spared. And the face of the fighting Irish admitted in a statement Thursday night that it "was, and is, painful and humiliating" to find out he "was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke." But why would you punk a Notre Dame hero and star linebacker? Aren't college-football heroes supposed to be the big men on campus?
One of the more popular theories swirling online today is that Te'o wasn't just a shy dater, or even necessarily just trying to prop up his campaign for the Heisman trophy in the national media. (Sportswriters love a great hero tale of a Notre Dame player losing his girlfriend and grandmother in just a matter of hours.) Yes, a lot of people on the Internet think Manti Te'o is gay. And the sexuality cover-up conspiracy theory spawns largely from this passage in the Deadspin exposé, which involves a very odd friend of Te'o's, named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo:
Te’o wasn’t the first person to have an online “relationship” with her. One mark—who had been “introduced” to Lennay by Tuiasosopo—lasted about a month before family members grew suspicious that Lennay could never be found on the telephone, and that wherever one expected Lennay to be, Ronaiah was there instead.
So, yeah, it's kind of strange that Tuiasosopo was showing up instead of the made-up girlfriend, Lennay Kekua. But that would point to Tuiasosopo being the perpetrator, right? Well, sure, except it appears that Te'o and Tuiasosopo, may have been close. Deadspin adds:
USC was unable to confirm this, but a tweet from Tuiasosopo’s since-deleted account suggests he and Te’o did see each other on that West Coast trip. “Great night with my bro @MTeo_5! #Heisman #574L,” Ronaiah tweeted on Nov. 23, the night before the game.
Cyd Ziegler, a writer at Outsports, a gay sports website, took the gay rumor in stride:
There has never been a publicly out Div. 1 football player. But we know they’re out there. And if they were out there and wanted to hide their sexual orientation — or a relationship with another man — a fictitious girlfriend is a good way to do it. The fantastic story about car accidents and death by leukemia would just be showing off that stereotypical gay flair for the dramatic.
Nobody knows whether Te'o was colluding on the hoax with Tuiasosopo, but, hey, that's one theory as to why they might have been.
The Te'o Family Gets Involved, but Did They Know?
Thus far, neither Te'o nor Notre Dame have explained why his parents spoke out so publicly about the emotional story of the made-up girlfriend — or whether they were in on it. But the day after the Deadspin story broke, everyone seems to think they must have been. The Boston Globe, one of the paper's fooled by the story, is pinning some of the blame on Te'o's parents. "They could not have been nicer and seemed genuine," reporter Amalie Benjamin wrote. "They answered everything in a very sincere way without hesitation. There was never any indication there was anything fishy about what they said."
And it seems Te'o's parents won over the college paper as well. The South Bend Tribune tells us today:
In a taped interview on Oct. 10 with Te'o's parents, Brian and Ottilia, Te'o's father said the initial meeting between Manti and Kekua came in person in late November 2009, when Notre Dame played Stanford in Palo, Alto, Calif.
The detail included the touching of hands and the fact Manti thought she was cute.
If you look at that October 12 story, Te'o's father, Brian, really seems to buy into the narrative:
"They started out as just friends,' Brian Te'o said. "Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there. But within the last year, they became a couple."
"And we came to the realization that she could be our daughter-in-law. Sadly, it won't happen now."
If you're buying into Te'o and Notre Dame's explanation — that Te'o's relationship existed exclusively online, and then in a phone call from someone "who told him that she was, in fact, not dead" — then it appears Te'o may have just been relaying his victimhood onto his parents. But that's not stopping writers like USA Today's Rachel George from asking: "Why did Brian Te'o share that information? Did Te'o lie to his father?" And it's not stopping more people from asking whether the parents were in on it.
Notre Dame Knew, but Who Dunnit?
Almost immediately after the Deadspin story broke, Notre Dame's press office released a statement. That's because Notre Dame already knew. University officials, the statement said, "were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents" of the hoax on December 26. And then they apparently contacted "the proper authorities":
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.
Which led many to wonder why Notre Dame didn't contact, you know, the cops (though, it's not like this hoax broke the law or anything). In a Thursday-night press conference, Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said Te'o was informed by a woman he thought was Kekua that she was not, in fact, Kekua, and that the university then worked internally and with an outside "investigative firm":
While apprised by that investigative firm of their work along the way, we received a final report from them on January 4th. I met with Brian and Ottilia Te'o in Miami on the 5th to share with them the essence of those findings. We left that meeting with an understanding that they would think about what they had heard, engaged Manti's future representation, which would be determined later in the week, in consultation as to how to best respond, and keep the university fully informed of their intentions and work in concert with us when they were ready to communicate the story.
So what does Notre Dame really know? And why did they only speak out after the Deadspin story had been published? Speculation has run rampant, because the timing offered by Te'o and Swarbrick remains more than shaky. USA Today's Paul Myerberg pieced together the timeline pretty well, and has this nugget:
-Dec. 6: Te'o discovers the hoax. While in Orlando for ESPN's end-of-year awards show, Te'o receives a phone call from a number he connected with Kekua. While the voice on the line was Kekua, the person speaking with Te'o told him that she was not dead. "Manti was very unnerved by that, as you can imagine," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said at a press conference Wednesday evening.
That's a whopping 20 days before Notre Dame officials said they were told. But here's something more, puzzling: Buzzfeed's video Svengali, Andrew Kaczynski, found a Te'o interview from December 8 — two days after he allegedly found out this was a hoax — wherein Te'o acknowledged that his "girlfriend" died from cancer. "I don't like cancer at all. I lost my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer," Te'o said. Te'o here is, at the very least, perpetuating his non-existent girlfriend's leukemia saga that wasn't.
Moreover, thanks to some sleuthing by Buzzfeed's Jack Moore, there's a Twitter trail that leads us to believe that people were joking about Te'o's' fake girlfriend 14 days before Notre Dame officials say they knew:
With all of these unanswered questions swirling around, you can kind of see why everyone's so anxious to see if and when Te'o explains himself any further. In the meantime, there remains one all-important question: "Why?"