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

Deadspin’s thunderous story on the hoax of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s nonexistent dead girlfriend hit the Internet yesterday just after 4 p.m. The next hour, says Deadspin Managing Editor Tom Scocca, was anxious.

Tommy Craggs, the site’s top editor, expressed concerns about the enterprise. “Craggs kept popping up out of his chair and pacing, asking, ‘Is there any way we could have gotten this wrong?’ Then he would sit down again and then pop up again,” recalls Scocca. Relief came in the late afternoon, when Notre Dame issued a statement confirming the hoax. Here’s that statement:

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.

Te’o himself issued an extensive statement saying that he had developed a thoroughly modern relationship with Kekua: “This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her.”

Both statements confirmed the Deadspin story by Jack Dickey and Timothy Burke. Yet Deadspin staffers had every reason to feel a bit nervous about the reporting, and not just because the allegations were so explosive as to cause obsession across the land. This was a story about an alleged Internet hoax, debunked in large part by Internet reporting.

The crux of the Deadspin story hinges on Twitter-based investigation. It documents how Te’o, one of the top college football players in the country, corresponded with Kekua’s alleged Twitter personality. Digging up the correspondence wasn’t easy because Kekua had kept the account private, meaning that Deadspin could find only “bits and pieces” of the feed. One thing Deadspin did find was an “ever-changing series of avatars and a handful of Twitpics” associated with the Kekua account. Deadspin: “All of those photographs — with one important exception — came from the private Facebook and Instagram accounts of [a woman in Torrance, Calif.], whom we found after an exhaustive related-images search of each of Lennay’s images (most of which had been modified in some way to prevent reverse image searching).”

As Scocca says, “It was very nerve-racking because … you’re dealing with people who are deceiving on the Internet and now you have someone who’s saying that they’re the real person whose identity was used in the deception.” And you found that person on the Internet. In other words: How could Deadspin be sure that this woman, whom it called Reba, wasn’t furthering the hoax, deceiving the news site?

Here’s how: Reba connected Deadspin’s investigation to a former classmate of hers, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. In one of the more bizarre moments in a piece with so many of them, Reba recounts how Tuiasosopo had asked her for a photo of herself posing with a certain sign. Reba complied. That particular photo later ended up as an avatar on one of Kekua’s Twitter accounts.

And here’s the clincher: Tuiasosopo is a member of an enormous football family and was an acquaintance of Te’o.

Via phone calls and online snooping, Deadspin reaches this conclusion:

We spoke with friends and relatives of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo who asserted that Ronaiah was the man behind Lennay. He created Lennay in 2008, one source said, and 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. Two sources discounted Ronaiah’s stunt as a prank that only metastasized because of Te’o’s rise to national celebrity this past season.

Deadspin never got Tuiasosopo on the line to hear his side of the story. Nor did it get Te’o or his father or Notre Dame. It also wrote a media story without consulting all the various media outlets that fell for the hoax. Why would it publish without those critical components? Competition.

Scocca, a former colleague of mine, cited a “fear that you’re going to tip them off and they will have a press conference or they’ll find a friendly reporter and get something out in a hurry,” he says. “We wanted to get comment from them but saved that till the end and weren’t able to get any responses and pulled the trigger.”

Those responses have spilled out in the aftermath of the story, though it’s unclear just how Te’o and Notre Dame plan to square their story of Internet-hoax victimhood with all of Te’o’s references to this relationship. At one point, he proclaimed to ESPN that he’ll see his deceased grandmother and girlfriend “again one day,” when he never laid eyes on the latter. He couldn’t have.

Does Scocca buy Te’o’s claim of victimhood? “The story is so weird that I … hesitate to guess at what’s probable or improbable. If he is, as he has said, a terrible victim of a awful hoax perpetrated against him, he is certainly a victim that has gotten a lot of benefit,” he says.

No benefit, however, for all of sports journalism, which swallowed the falsity so many times that SBNation turned the group fail into a quite compelling list. Critics simply cannot believe that so many reporters fell for it, though the history of the Internet yields one clue: Once a big-name news outlet reports something, the rest of the media is free to repeat without confirming. In this case, Sports Illustrated wrote a cover story — “The Full Manti” — that dug into the emotional trauma of this gridiron star.

Or at least the lede of the story did. Over three paragraphs, the piece by Pete Thamel spouted eight discrete facts about Te’o’s ill-fated relationship with Kekua and its sorrowful end. After Deadspin got the tip that the Kekua didn’t exist, Scocca looked to the Sports Illustrated piece as a big part of the “epistemological hurdle” that Deadspin would have to clear: The evidence, that is, that would have to be rebutted to prove that this woman was someone’s fabrication. Turned out that hurdle wasn’t too lofty; Thamel’s piece cited no substantiation that Kekua ever existed, let alone died. Here’s one line from the piece:

“Her relatives told him that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice.” Wonder if anyone reached out to any such relatives?

The colossal embarrassment will prompt a whole lot of soul-searching among sports-news outlets about their addiction to treacly human interest stories on big-time athletes. The outcome will be nil. There’s no way that a single story, even one as astonishing as this one, will tweak the collective instinct of generations and generations of sports reporters. These are people, after all, who will never be content to simply let sporting events speak for themselves. They must add something, and it’s all too often this sort of garbage.

After Notre Dame beat Michigan State on Sept. 15 following the alleged double-sorrow in Manti’s life, ESPN took the linebacker aside for a little chat. Te’o had recorded an impressive 12 tackles.

Heather Cox: Manti, this must be a bittersweet night, emotional week losing your grandmother and your girlfriend on Tuesday. How would you describe your emotions on the field tonight?

Te’o: [Stock response, talks about support from family.]

Cox: Can’t imagine what you’re going through…and you played inspired on the field with an interception, over 10 tackles. You came in with a challenge to stop Le’Veon Bell, how did you do it?

Te’o: [Stock response, talks about teammates, dominating]

Cox: A courageous night, our thoughts are certainly with you.

Brent Musburger: Manti Te’o, the defensive player of this game, standing tall with a heavy heart here tonight, as the Irish pull to 3-0…

Those words captured how the sports world handled Te’o’s performance that night. Overcoming adversity. Here was an illustration of just how malleable, how corruptible is sports journalism’s commitment to such story lines. After all, this dear girlfriend had died, and Te’o couldn’t be bothered to see her laid to rest. “That’s not that heroic. You have a guy who blew off his girlfriend’s funeral for a football game,” says Scocca.

 

 

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