Jan 17 (Reuters) - The tip that led to the revelation that one of the most widely recounted U.S. sports narratives of the past year was a hoax came to the editors of an online sports blog as many of their news tips do: an unsolicited email.
That email led Deadspin.com assignment editor Timothy Burke on the hunt of a story that exposed the heart-wrenching tale of standout Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te‘o’s dead girlfriend as a fabrication, Burke said on CNN on Thursday.
Te‘o sprang to national prominence last fall when the senior co-captain was seen heroically leading the Fighting Irish to an underdog victory against the Michigan State Spartans within days of learning his grandmother had died. Moreover, it was widely reported, Te‘o’s girlfriend had died of leukemia just hours after his grandmother’s death.
From that point, Te‘o’s narrative was a prominent feature in coverage of the team, which has a dedicated following and whose games are televised nationally each week.
Notre Dame went on to an undefeated regular season, culminating in a berth in the national championship game, which the Fighting Irish lost to the Alabama Crimson Tide on Jan. 7.
“We got an email last week at Deadspin.com that said ‘Hey, there’s something real weird about Lennay Kekua, Manti Te‘o’s allegedly dead girlfriend. You guys should check it out,'” Burke said.
The email prompted Burke and co-author Jack Dickey to begin searching online for background on Kekua. “So we start Googling the name Lennay Kekua. We can’t find any evidence of this person that wasn’t attached to stories about her being Manti Te‘o’s dead girlfriend.”
Their investigation led about a week later to a 4,000-word expose, published Wednesday under the headline “Blarney,” that painstakingly debunked the story of Kekua’s existence. The story went viral online.
Within hours of its publishing, officials at Notre Dame, one of the most powerful institutions in college football and U.S. collegiate athletics overall, held a hastily organized press conference to assert that Te‘o had been duped in a hoax perpetrated by a friend of his.
The girlfriend, who called herself Kekua and claimed to be a Stanford University graduate, was merely an online persona who “ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia,” university spokesman Dennis Brown said in a statement.
Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said the university learned of the hoax from Te‘o on Dec. 26. Te‘o answered questions forthrightly and private investigators uncovered several things that pointed to Te‘o being a victim in the case, Swarbrick said.
Te‘o himself later issued a statement to Deadspin.com:
“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. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.”
Deadspin’s Burke said he remains skeptical of this being a hoax perpetrated on Te‘o rather than by Te‘o.
“Ask yourself why and what incentive a person would have to execute such a lengthy, time-consuming and expensive con that would involve multiple people and essentially consume his entire life just to screw around with a guy that he knows?” Burke said on CNN.
But Te‘o, who finished second in the voting for the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player, had an incentive to perpetuate the story after learning in early December that she was fictitious, Burke said.
“If he was the patsy in this, where is the incentive for the person who conned him. And we can’t find any. But we can find at least a sliver of a possible incentive for Manti Te‘o ‘cause we know every story written about him this college football season after his girlfriend allegedly died mentioned his inspiring story about coming back and perseverance through personal loss and tragedy,” Burke said. (Reporting by Dan Burns; Additional reporting by James B. Kelleher and David Bailey; Editing by Vicki Allen)