Manti Te’o scandal: The one question Pete Thamel didn’t ask

January 17, 2013
Manti Te'o
Manti Te’o (Winslow Townson / The Associated Press)

Take 20 minutes and read every word of this transcript. It’s the conversation that Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel had with Manti Te’o about Lennay Kekua, the dead girlfriend whose nonexistence was revealed yesterday by Deadspin. The notes date back to September, when Thamel traveled to South Bend to report on Te’o’s heroism, playing and starring in key football games following the death of his grandmother and the fake death of his non-girlfriend.

Why did Sports Illustrated release the transcript? Well, there is some exculpatory material in it. Thamel asks tons of questions about Manti and Lennay, detailed ones that might well have forced a recantation from someone who was looking to pull off a hoax, not that Thamel at the time suspected any such thing. He was just trying to get the story straight.

The same set of words, however, contain culpatory dimensions as well. Whenever Thamel really gets into the weeds, for example, Te’o responds with mildly evasive answers. Witness this exchange:

SI: What was her major?
TE’O: Her major was in English and something. I’ll double check.

Or this one:

SI: You have a wedding ring on?
TE’O: It’s my church ring. I wear it to remember her. To remember my girlfriend.
SI: Did she give it to you?
TE’O: It’s a CTR ring. It stands for choose the right. I always wore it. I had to switch it from my right to my left.

Here is the part of the exchange relating to Lennay’s non-funeral:

SI: Your girlfriend’s funeral was yesterday?
TE’O: I talked to [her family yesterday]. I cried. I cried at 12 noon yesterday. At 9 a.m. California time.
SI: She was buried in California?
TE’O: She was always in California. Her family is from Hawaii but they live in California.
SI: Where did you meet her in California?
TE’O: She actually came to one of the games. She saw me at one of the games.
SI: October 15, I assume is USC?
TE’O: That was in November. But she saw me at the USC game of my sophomore year. We were still just friends, we were acquaintances.
SI: Where did she live then?
TE’O: Carson.
SI: The funeral service was in Carson? At 9 a.m., a closed casket?
TE’O: Yes. The family was telling me, what the plans were and at 9 they closed the casket and stuff like that.
SI: Where were you at noon yesterday?
TE’O: It was kind of actually perfect timing. I was getting my reps and in my mind I said, “What time is it? What time is it?” It was perfect timing. Right when coach was like,”All right, second group get it,” I turned to him and was like, “Coach what time is it?” He said, “It’s 12:01.” As I walked back to the (inaudible) I just cried.

It’s the one spot where Thamel missed an obvious line of inquiry: If she was so dear to you, why on earth weren’t you there?

The various quirks in the transcript indicate something fishy about the story Te’o was telling, but only in hindsight, after reading the nailed-tight debunking in Deadspin. Combined with the magazine’s failure to find corroboration of the death, the car accident, the Stanford graduation, and so on and so on, these hiccups should have triggered a deeper investigation at Sports Illustrated of this entire narrative. They didn’t. Again: Understandable and inexcusable.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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Erik Wemple | January 17, 2013