Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Manti Te'o Catfishing Story is the Best, Most Bizarre Sports Story. Ever.

Picture this: a high school-turned-collegiate football phenom from a family of similarly-gifted pigskin pushers, fresh off an incredible four years at Notre Dame University. He is crushed by the deaths of two women very close to him — his grandmother and doting girlfriend — within hours of each other. He goes on to lead his team to an epic upset victory against rival Michigan State
. A surefire prospect for the upcoming NFL draft. This is the life of Manti Te'o: an inspirational one, at least at first glance. But there's a huge chunk of it that's also a lie. A big, weird, rambling lie.
You know what they say: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and while there's not a lot of good in the story (lying, cover-ups, potential Catfishing), there is a lot of hearsay and potential absolutely scandalous revelations. This is why the Manti Te'o tale is the greatest thing to happen to sports.

Sure, there's lots of things about sports that people care about and like, but the Te'o story crosses all boundaries of interest — it is a universal lightning rod for controversy and proverbial rubbernecking. In the incredibly weird narrative, several players are involved. Deadspin lays it out in extensive detail, but here's everything you need to know quickly and easily:

Manti Te'o is an NFL draft prospect, Notre Dame alumnus, and resident of Hawaii. A Mormon and longtime fan of USC (his family has a veritable smorgasbord of football players in it), he used faith and prayer to decide on Notre Dame. He long purported to be friends with (and later date) a girl named Lennay Kekua of California. On September 12, Te'o's grandmother and (six hours later) girlfriend (Kekua) passed away. His grandmother — and her death — were both confirmed as real events.
Lennay Kekua was allegedly a 22-year-old Stanford graduate, friend of Te'o's since the two allegedly met at a football game in 2009, and eventual girlfriend of Te'o as of January 2012. She died hours (or maybe days? No one seems to have a straight answer) after Te'o's grandmother — after a major car accident followed by the discovery that she had leukemia. Oh yeah, she's also 100% fabricated. By Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.
Ronaiah Tuiasosopo is a religious singer and former classmate of the actual woman used in Kekua's photos. He's also a very close family and personal friend of Te'o's. He was also in a major car accident in California, about a month before Kekua was allegedly injured. He may have also made up Kekua's sister, U'ilani Rae Kekua.
U'ilani Rae Kekua is the faux-sister of Lennay Kekua. There is speculation that this account was also made by Tuiasosopo. U'ilani also frequently tweeted with Te'o. Photos claimed to be U'ilani were actually of a woman named Donna Tei. Tei apparently attempted to contact Nev Schulman of Catfish fame (the show and the movie) after realizing her photos were being used without her knowledge.
So, you can see the appeal of a story so bizarre and seemingly shrouded in mystery and lies (probably from everyone involved). Now that the story has broken, it seems everyone is singing different tunes: Te'o is asserting he was the victim of a hoax, but his seemingly close relationship with Tuiasosopo makes it hard to believe that it could go on for as long as it did. But is it possible? Well, if you watch the show Catfish, you'll know that it is: in episode 7 of the show's inaugural season, a boy named Joe believed he had fallen in love with former Miss America Keri Ann Peniche, only to later discover it was his close friend Rose the whole time. Now, if you believe this particular episode's authenticity then you know: sometimes even the best of friends go to really weird lengths to have a relationship with someone they have feelings for: heck, that's the point of the show, to an extent!

That said, it is also entirely possible that Te'o was aware of Kekua's true identity the whole time. Think about it: a hotshot sports star (a scene that isn't generally the most accepting of non-heteronormative lifestyle choices) who's deeply religious, and a friend who's set up a fake female profile online to talk to the person he already knows in real life, who is also deeply religious? Could this double-cross simply be an attempt to maintain a secret relationship between two young, gay men? Plus the added "inspirational quotient" that comes along with turning around an entire football franchise single-handedly — especially during a tragedy. We all know everybody loves a story with a good triumph at the end — and Kekua's death and illness play into that like a screenwriter's dream. Which, of course would make this scenario all the more icky and terrible. But, hey, welcome to 2013! Repression and deception when it comes to sexuality are hardly anything new. And in this situation, it could actually make sense. Of course, only when the truth actually comes out will we know the real reasons behind this increasingly-modern tale of love and deceit in the Internet age.

In an official statement from Notre Dame, University Spokesman Dennis Brown explained the University's involvement as that of completely unaware and totally not at fault. "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 also released a confounding, meandering statement: "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. It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother's death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life. I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been. In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was. Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I'm looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft."

However the story unfolds, it seems one thing is for certain: this will not end well, for anyone except the viewing public. MTV, if you don't chronicle this on Catfish or if somebody doesn't make a movie about this, you have all failed us. Now get going!

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