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An Oral History of the Manti Te'o Catfish Story: Part 2

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Part two of our look back on this strange saga deals with the immediate aftermath on the evening of January 16, 2013.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

"In many ways, Manti was the perfect mark because he is a guy who is so willing to believe in others and so ready to help that, as this hoax played out in a way that called upon those tendencies of Manti and roped him more and more into the trap." -Jack Swarbrick, January 16, 2013

CLICK HERE FOR PART 1 OF THIS ORAL HISTORY

CLICK HERE FOR A TIMELINE OF THE EVENTS

Our Discussion Panel

arnold1
Keith Arnold- NBC Sports' Inside the Irish manager, Bleacher Report lead writer

walters1
John Walters- Newsweek Senior Sports Writer

ritter1
Ryan Ritter- Her Loyal Sons Editor-in-Chief

frank1
Frank Vitovitch- UHND Manager

fish
Fishoutofwater- One Foot Down writer

young2
Youngcrumudgeon- One Foot Down writer

ndroyals2
NDRoyalsfan- One Foot Down writer


In the late afternoon of January 16, 2013 a story was published by Deadpsin that sent thousands of Notre Dame fans--and a lot of folks around the country--into a tizzy. Manti Te'o's girlfriend didn't exist? This was an elaborate ruse? Te'o was in on it? Our panel discusses their reaction to the first Deadspin report...

fish

Fish: I tend to read skeptically in general and didn't take anything Deadspin reported, apart from the substantive evidence they presented, as conclusive until it was corroborated by other sources. They inferred so, so much from the actual evidence they had, and it was clear from reading the article initially that the narrative they decided upon was one of several plausible options. That Te'o was complicit in the fabrication of Lennay Kekua was one option, but it wasn't supported by any unimpeachable evidence at all and seemed totally inconsistent with so much that we knew about him, his friends, and family.

I was skeptical, yes, but open to their narrative being proved true; it never was, and the tide turned swiftly back in favor of Te'o's tragic (and to some, inexcusable) naiveté as additional evidence and corroborating accounts came out over the following days.

ndroyals2

NDRoyalsfan: I was fairly skeptical right away, but my initial thought wasn't about T'eo's involvement, it was about the "existence" of Kekua. After Swarbricks statement that night, I thought the 80% line was a joke.

ritter1

Ryan: The thing that will forever piss me off about the way Deadspin handled the story is the 80% quote. Further, Burke nor anyone else ever seemed to realize what kind of bell they rung. It wasn't just that the 80% quote implicated Te'o as an accomplice to the situation, but there was also a tone that Notre Dame was complicit in the cover-up as well.

And yeah, that didn't jive at all. Te'o would have to be some kind of sociopath that craved the spotlight above anything else for that conclusion to make sense. That just wasn't who Te'o appeared to be at all.

young2

Youngcrumudgeon: I felt in my gut immediately the 80% he was in on it was garbage. Didn't fit what I knew about the guy and just didn't fit right. I looked at it this way: either Te'o was the victim here or he's the master of the long-con and the CIA should sign him up for their political espionage division.

frank1

Frank: I was skeptical right away that Te'o could have been involved after following his career so closely for the last five years including his recruiting.  With the way he came to Notre Dame over USC on Signing Day to pretty much every interview he ever gave, there just didn't seem to be any way in my mind that he could have been in on it.

arnold1

Keith: There's no question that the 80% line stuck out to me, especially since the rest of the story was pretty impressively researched. And you wanted it to be wrong. So very badly. But without hearing from Te'o, it was hard to figure it out. Especially when you could see the tweets and you started to understand that he wasn't completely truthful about the specifics of this relationship.

deadspin

But to me, complaining about the one sentence in that story is missing the point. Deadspin - the ultimate muckrakers - just basically found the Holy Grail. They took down a legend that everybody - big media, little media, print media, local media - spent the year building up.

walters1

John: Deadspin has always been slanted toward anti-establishmentism and what's more establishment than Notre Dame? This story was a classic example of what Deadspin does well and what also makes it juvenile.


The Deadspin story was so shocking that a lot of follow up details and important corrections about Te'o's involvement were largely swept away in those crucial first hours. Did most of the country read the story that night, see the TV reporting, and simply move on? We discuss that and Deadspin's follow ups after the fact.

arnold1

It was a perfect storm. The Deadspin story was just so fabulously unfathomable. And they so completely owned the story that you really had nothing to talk about until somebody got to Ronaiah. And things just got weirder and weirder, the Dr. Phil, the episode of Katie, the no-cameras interview with Jeremy Schaap.

I was just thinking about Roniah the other day. I hope that kid got help.

ritter1

Keep in mind that Notre Dame was already under fire with the Lizzy Seeberg and Declan Sullivan tragedies. Burke and Deadspin were certainly hoping that this Te'o scandal would somehow blow the lid off Notre Dame's return as a football power, swapping the feel good story for a tarnished Dome special. Now, I don't believe that every writer is out to get Notre Dame, but that kind of a story is a huge boon for any writer considering the kind of polarizing reactions ND causes.

young2

Welcome to media in 21st century, if it bleeds it leads. There were plenty of people out there who wanted to knock the face of ND football off a sanctimonious perch and they had their ammunition in that initial report. The fact that the man in the arena turned out to be just a naïve kid and not some evil manipulator took the wind out of their sails.

frank1

Prior to Te'o's story catfishing wasn't really that well known despite the movie.  I for one didn't know what the heck it was so I'd imagine, knowing the demographic makeup of the college football fan base, that many others didn't as well. Combine that with the fact that there are a lot of people out there that would have loved nothing more than for the latest golden boy from Notre Dame to have a tarnished background, and that's why I think a lot of people ignored the facts later.  Two weeks is also an eternity in the court of public opinion.  Most people's minds were made up long before Tuiasosopo's name came out and the interview aired.

walters1

I argue with my entrenched fellow Notre Dame alums about this all the time. I blame Notre Dame for not breaking the story itself. They're mad because the story has been distorted. I say that Notre Dame and Manti lost all moral high ground, and all control of how the story would play out, when they chose not to out themselves. "When the legend overtakes fact, print the legend", as they say.

ndroyals2

I think a lot had to do with Deadspin's version of events being the first and only thing anyone read about the incident. It's obviously unfortunate that people still think that Te'o was in on it because of the initial Deadspin report or other hypotheses.

fish

I think most of us tend to take at face value the first reported version of events for news stories we aren't particularly invested in. The same was bound to be true here, which makes it a travesty that ESPN sat on the story (given to them by Te'o's agent a week before Deadspin blew it up) until it was too late. That said, it seems that most who follow football (either college or professional) or Notre Dame accept that Te'o wasn't complicit in the hoax, but was the victim. Some mock his naiveté or gullibility or fibbing about the nature of his relationship with Lennay in an interview or two; some recognize him as a fully sympathetic innocent upon whom a particularly cruel and fantastic hoax was shamelessly perpetrated.

At the time the whole story was unraveling, I was hopeful that Te'o would not end a mere punchline - that his common legacy at Notre Dame and beyond it would be a rich and meaningful one, not a cynical joke. Just about every piece of information and most commentary from established journalists that came out after the Deadspin story supported Te'o as a sympathetic victim in the situation, and that turn of the tide left its mark.

arnold1

I've got no problem with Deadspin. There's a reason Jack Dickey just wrote a cover story for Time Magazine on Taylor Swift. What a scoop, especially for a college kid. Was the story perfect? No. But correcting it now is a little bit like watching The Newsroom. Of course you'll get the story right if you have two years to love over things, double-check them, get confessions, etc. And why would they give Manti the benefit of the doubt?

Was my reaction the same back then? No. I thought they were out to get Notre Dame. And if you think about it, the backlash was likely so severe because it came right after the Irish were "exposed" on the football field. And that was after two months of getting fed non-stop Notre Dame news.

We had ESPN hosting an Irish coaching get together with Lou, Ara and BK. Can you imagine watching a USC or Michigan get-together with their old coaching greats? Te'o taking home every conceivable award, minus the Heisman. The fact that ND had the No. 1 graduation rate and the No. 1 team. And nobody was afraid to tell you - nor should they have been. It all went so well until about 90 seconds into the Alabama game.

young2

I don't think it's accurate to throw this all on Deadspin. After the initial article dropped, I don't recall going back to Deadspin for further coverage. In my recollection, ESPN drove the story following its initial breaking, so I have no idea how they conducted themselves following the initial report.

fish

Deadspin's actions following the breaking of the story were bound to be nothing but a footnote in the whole thing - there was no un-ringing that bell, and I had no interest in whatever inadequate mea culpa they might follow up with. The narrative they laid over the evidence they reported was unfounded and irresponsible and I think effectively undermined by the reporting done by other journalists and outlets in the ensuing weeks.

ritter1

When Deadspin and Burke started to force-field themselves with the "hey, we were the only people willing to break this story" when it became clear Te'o was a victim, it was infuriating. They (redacted) up, but it didn't matter. They were first and they were mostly right and everyone gave them a pass-fallout from an 80% guess be damned.

There are still people that think Manti made the whole thing up because of how Deadspin handled it. That's just inexcusable in my mind. To be perfectly honest, I'm not even mad at how they broke the story and stood by it. Even the 80% line. But when you are clearly wrong, you have to admit it with just as much gusto as when you drop the bombshell.

ndroyals2

It was kind of embarrassing to hear their response to people question the 80% line. They trashed "traditional" media throughout the story for not finding out about Kekua, but then claimed that they were "different" and shouldn't be held to the same standards when their version of events was shown to be incorrect. The disappointing part was that they still could have dominated the story without the "Manti was in on it to try to win Heisman" angle, but for whatever reason, decided to run it.  "Heisman Runner Up's Dead Girlfriend Actually an Internet Hoax" would probably have generated as many page views as what they actually published.

walters1

Deadspin is that kid in the corner of the class who mocks all the cool or good-looking kids...until they're invited to join their table at lunch, and then they suddenly have nothing mean to say. Look at Will Leitch. I love that Deadspin has broken some big stories--mainly by having disenfranchised people email them tips --but they're also often the bully pretending they're just the little guy.

frank1

Prior to the Te'o story I had probably read an article on Deadspin once or twice.  Since the Te'o story I actually don't think I have read another one I didn't pay any attention to their reporting following the breaking of the story.


One of the big topics in the first few days after this story hit the waves was how the traditional media had failed to do their job. This was particularly evident in Deadspin's own narrative of the story as they--a blog just 7 years old--scooped this story on Te'o. Should all of those reporters and media members have done more?

ndroyals2

Disclaimer: I say all of this as someone that has next to no formal journalism education. I do think some of their criticism was warranted, and that someone should have put things together. It's hard to specifically blame Thamel or any one individual for not discovering it, but there were some significant red flags (lack of obituary/funeral) that someone should have investigated further.

arnold1

If she went to Stanford, you should've found someone who knew her at Stanford. If she was buried, you should've found an obituary or a death certificate. If she was at a hospital, you'd find a nurse. If you wrote a story about Te'o and the girlfriend he eulogized every Saturday on the football field, you should've found her family. I say this as someone who didn't write those profiles (I was too busy blogging about the football and working a day job), but as someone who had no problem linking to them, reading them or applauding them, I was part of the problem, too. But yeah - Deadspin was right. And it was a bit crazy that just about everybody missed this.

young2

I was surprised that no one in the media had been able to knock the dominos down sooner. When the story had been all laid, I found it hard to believe that it had been maintained for so long. The idea that a person could die after a lengthy battle with cancer, have a funeral, and be buried without leaving a trace to this day strikes me as fantastic. Of course, none of this crossed my mind before the story broke. I assumed, as an ND student and as a fan, that the pieces produced by various outlets throughout the season had undergone at least a cursory fact-checking process. I believed what had been written about the whole affair.

frank1

Hindsight is always 20/20 so I suppose the mainstream media could have kept digging, but given how much of a feel good story this was and how crazy the actual story was, who could have imagined that this was all just some elaborate hoax being playing out on Te'o on a national stage?  Given Te'o's background and spotless image and he never really gave anyone any reason to doubt the story.  A lot of people also like to try and make the case that Te'o used this whole story to help his Heisman campaign, but at the time this broke, Te'o wasn't a Heisman candidate.  It wasn't until a month later that he really was in the thick of the race.

walters1

All of us in traditional media are to blame. As is Deadspin, which had no clue either until someone tipped them off. That's what I found hilarious about Deadspin's condescending tone. It's not as if they unearthed it. George Dorhmann is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who specializes in investigations for Sports Illustrated. He is also a Notre Dame alum. The Lennay Kekua hoax even got past his radar. I think we all just took it for granted that it was true because why wouldn't it be? I think the question is this: For all of us who said we'll be more skeptical of everything going forward, has that turned out to be true?

But yes, absolutely, I am to blame. Thamel is to blame. The people who should and do fill the worst are the people who were on the beat...writers who cover Notre Dame day in and day out and did not expose what would have been the story of the decade.

Now, to be fair, ND does not allow much access to players. This would not have been an easy get. But you start with, "Coach Kelly (or Manti), why is there no record of this woman's existence on the internet?" and you proceed from there. In fact, Notre Dame's own media relations staff is also to blame...

fish

We're talking about college sports and the popular, celebrity-making media machine here, not serious, reality-shaping journalism. When it comes to human interest footnotes relayed during sporting events, I don't think it's imperative for commentators or writers to treat those narratives with the kind of gravity required in the reporting of other kinds of news. There's a very moderate level of fact-checking and corroboration rightly expected by spectators and readers of longer form sports writing, but it didn't seem to me at the time that any traditional media or institutions (Notre Dame included) violated those standards in relaying a very few tidbits about the story of college football star Manti Te'o's tragic romance. Deadspin needed a platitude to elevate their story beyond the sensationalistic, cynical, tabloid exposé it was, and "this is about ethics in sports journalism" was the one they chose.

ritter1

Deadspin's...well, spin...to attack the national media was ridiculous. Hindsight is 20/20 and there wasn't a soul around that thought Te'o's story was a lie, including Deadspin. If they were so confident that this story could've been easily debunked, they would have done it in the middle of the 2012 season. They didn't. They had to wait until pieces of the story started leaking and they could begin to piece it together.

ESPN could have very well been the first to the punch had they not waited like they did. Anyone thinking that Deadspin wasn't frantically trying to beat them to the bunch is deluding themselves. Deadspin won the race. The winner of the war always gets to write the history.


Later in the evening around dinner time on the 16th Manti Te'o released a statement stressing his innocence in the matter and how he had been a victim of an elaborate scheme. A week later the New York Times shed some light into how Te'o, his agent, and Notre Dame began an investigation, leaked it to ESPN, and then found themselves scrambling when Deadspin usurped the story. Then there was the lack of an on-camera interview...

fish

The story needed to be told by somebody else - by a relatively independent media organization with the resources to assemble the evidence, talk to the involved parties, and present the story with the objectivity of an institution that would benefit about equally from the narrative either upholding or shredding Te'o. I think it made sense for Condon to go to ESPN instead of having Te'o and Notre Dame present the story directly.

young2

I think if Notre Dame had broken the news, the victim narrative may have come more naturally.

ritter1

I understand that Condon wanted a national outlet to have the story. He knew this could kill his client's draft stock so he had to get a PR plan in place to fight it. The problem was that he underestimated Deadspin and perhaps even ESPN's willingness to break the story before anyone else would. Simply put, it was a sloppy miscalculation.

schaap

ndroyals2

This was probably the biggest mistake T'eo and company made in this whole saga. I could see why he would want to work with a media outlet to break the story on their terms, but I would think that setting up an interview with Manti and Schapp (or someone else) as quickly as possible would have been a much better option than what they chose.

arnold1

The Jeremy Schaap interview is just bizarre. No cameras? I'm having a hard time understanding the rationale, other than being just so utterly embarrassed.

ndroyals2

An on-camera interview a week after the title game would have been a much better way for people to find out about the hoax than a Deadspin.

ritter1

In hindsight, I'm not sure how you could see that decision as anything else but a huge mistake.

fish

Te'o was a humiliated college student whose glowing image was about to be detonated, to his and his family's and friends' very public shame. I can't imagine anyone in that situation saying "yes, put me on camera right now - I would just love that." It's a true shame that ESPN wasn't able to run the story before Deadspin, but then and now, I respect their reticence in a situation where they felt they needed more information to proceed responsibly. Deadspin's eschewing of such responsibility is not the fault of ESPN.

ndroyals2

For all of the talk of "ESPN hating ND" I think they deserve credit for not running with it if they felt they didn't have enough information. While the WWL doesn't need to validate itself by breaking stories, they could stood to gain a lot by being the first to release the story. It's not surprising that ESPN would want to do some of their own investigation before printing something coming straight from Te'o. Additionally, we don't know how much information they had when Deadspin published their story. ND's own investigation took more than a week, and if ESPN was informed of the hoax a few days after the title game, a similar length investigation would have put the completion date after Deadspin published their story.

ritter1

It's hard to give praise for inaction or perhaps more accurately, give praise for not having full knowledge of why they withheld the story. Perhaps they too had a suspicion that Te'o was behind this and were digging to see if that angle was true. If it was, even bigger story for them (hence why Deadspin went that route). Perhaps their editorial staff required additional fact-checking to ensure they weren't just being used as a PR mouthpiece which would bite them in the ass later. It's easy to see now that they had enough info to run with the story before Deadspin. I'm not sure that I could praise or blame them in hindsight, lest I make a 80% declaration of my own.

walters1

Hindsight is 20/20 on that. Or 30 for 30. I can never get those two straight.


Shortly after Te'o's statement was released to the public Notre Dame Athletic Director stepped in front of cameras and gave one of the most unprecedented press conferences in collegiate athletics. Swarbrick received a lot of praise but also a lot of criticism for his decision to fiercely defend Manti Te'o.

young2

I remember discussing this very subject with my friends while watching the Swarbrick press conference. The general sentiment was one of the whole situation was so strange; we couldn't really blame Swarbrick for much. The guy had been brought in to run the athletics department. I doubt dealing with a catfishing scheme was brought up in the interview. I recall no ill will toward Swarbrick or the ND administration at large. In fact, the feelings were more sympathetic. We had the impression that as he answered the questions, Swarbrick couldn't believe he had to deal with something so bizarre. We were joking that there had to be a little something extra in that big Panera iced tea to help him through the oddness of it all.

walters1

They should have released this IMMEDIATELY, in that week between Christmas and New Year's. My friends say, "This would've affected how they played versus Alabama." I say, "Look around. It did." Manti knew the jig was up. His diffident play was on display. They were going to lose, anyway, but he looked awful.

ndroyals2

I think the only way they could have controlled the narrative would have been to make the announcement before Deadspin released their version of the story. I expect far more people read the Deadspin story than watched Swarbrick's press conference, and many of those that saw both had probably already made up their minds after reading the piece.

arnold1

It was no longer Notre Dame's story to control. Te'o had chosen an agent, and one presumably well-versed in crisis management. That didn't work out so hot, did it? The lesson, as always, I think: Stick with Jack.

ritter1

All things considered, I feel Swarbrick did as good of a job as he could have. I felt that back then once all the facts became clear and I still feel that way now. Swarbrick was trying to do a very delicate dance to protect the interests of Te'o along with ND. In hindsight, I wished he had pushed the whole Te'o family harder to beat Deadspin to the punch. However, I don't think that anyone foresaw Deadspin breaking the story in the fashion that they did.

Again, you have to remember that they knew the information was out there, but everyone involved knew Te'o was innocent in the matter. I don't think the Te'o family nor Swarbrick thought anyone would dare jump to a conclusion that Manti aided in this scam due to the facts.

fish

At the time, I thought Notre Dame and Jack Swarbrick did an admirable and adequate job of responding to a hopeless and fairly unprecedented situation. They supported Te'o sincerely and openly, then basically got out of the way. That seems true to me still.


Coming up in part 3 of 3...

*Exploring the naivete of Manti Te'o.

*Sympathizing with Manti's girlfriend coming back from the dead!

*Re-playing the Alabama game under different circumstances.

*Explaining this whole saga to people.