The Washington Post

At Notre Dame, a fake tragedy gets more tears than a real one

Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o (Jeff Haynes/Reuters)

So many tears for a fake dead girl, but none for a real one.

The death of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s beautiful, brave girlfriend Lennay Kekua — widely reported by Sports Illustrated, CBS and many other media outlets — was all either an elaborate hoax or worse.

And in response, my alma mater held the kind of emotional news conference for the fake dead girl they never held for the real one, Lizzy Seeberg.

As I’ve reported before, evidence that the University of Notre Dame covers up for sexual predators on the football team in hopes of winning some games has been mostly ignored. “Who can know?” my fellow alums asked, on their way to snap up some more “Play Like a Champion Today” T-shirts ahead of the big game.

But evidence that the school kept mum after learning that the story of Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend, who as she lay dying urged him to fight on to victory anyway — gosh, just like the Gipper — was concocted from start to finish? Now, that’s a national story, and a real gut punch to fans, involving such important matters as the pursuit of the Heisman Trophy.

At a minimum, Te’o Manti himself embellished the truth of his relationship with a woman he’d never actually met, and there are many questions yet to be answered.

But even if turns out that Notre Dame officials were in some respects the victims in this weird story, their casual airbrushing of the truth will hurt them more than their quite deliberate disinformation campaign about Seeberg, the Saint Mary’s College freshman who committed suicide in 2010 after accusing a Notre Dame football player of sexual assault.

No, we won’t tolerate having our feelings manipulated, even if outlets, including Sports Illustrated, were so eager for a piece of the mythmaking that their hokum detectors either never sounded or were disabled.

Seeberg was ignored and threatened in life and purposefully lied about in death, but a story implicating those who run Notre Dame was for many of my fellow alums — and fellow journalists, as well — too uncomfortable to want to know about.

The one about car-accident and leukemia patient Lennay Kekua was too good to check, however, even as it just kept getting better. In a cover story on Te’o for Sports Illustrated, Pete Thamel wrote that Kekua’s relatives had told Notre Dame’s star linebacker that in the hospital where she was supposedly dying, “at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice.” And when he sang the fight song, her eyelids fluttered?

I spoke to a reporter for Deadspin, which broke the story that it was all a ruse after receiving a tip just Friday from Te’o’s home state of Hawaii that many people there were aware that the “dead girlfriend” had never lived.

“I don’t see that there’s enough in it for him to make it up,’’ the reporter, Jack Dickey, said of Te’o. “But I also don’t think he couldn’t have known.’’

I will leave it to others to sort through the particulars of a culture in which it’s easier to have a nonexistent girlfriend than a real one, easier to go along with a heartwarming fable than come to terms with an unpleasant reality.

But we know for sure that a story aired by “CBS This Morning” on Jan. 7 that told the phony boo-hoo tale appeared after Notre Dame knew that no such woman had ever walked the Earth. According to its own statement, the school knew this was a hoax three weeks ago, on Dec. 26.

“Notre Dame collaborated with CBS,’’ Dickey said. “I guess they wanted to keep it quiet, and I guess they thought no one would ever figure it out.”

School officials also seem to have retroactively deleted references to Te’o’s dead girlfriend on the transcript of a news conference, he said.

So, at the least, Notre Dame kept quiet about the truth after it knew the facts.

This makes me ask for something like the millionth time when Notre Dame is going to start taking seriously what their mission statement says about the pursuit of truth for its own sake.

I’m sincerely sorry for all my Notre Dame friends who told me they were looking past the way our school treated Lizzy Seeberg and other women — in no small measure because Te’o was “the real deal” and represented “what Notre Dame is really all about.”

Turns out, they were right.

Melinda Henneberger
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors She the People. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

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