Notes on a Scandal: Manti Te’o and the Media

As we start to take stock of 2013, a look back at the year’s most perplexing sports story

  • Share
  • Read Later
Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images

Have you heard the one about the Notre Dame linebacker with a 3.3 GPA–the defensive captain named a first-team academic all-American–who had no idea that the late love of his life, his famously leukemia-stricken girlfriend and soul mate, had never existed and in fact had been concocted by an amateur religious musician and failed quarterbacking prospect from the Tuiasosopo football pseudo-dynasty? Yeah, sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

When my Deadspin then-colleagues and I broke the story in January that Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had never existed — my brain still scrambles when I type that phrase — we figured we’d have a healthy-sized traffic spike from college football fans. Instead we had the biggest story in the site’s history: 4.2 million hits, at last count. TV bookers installed our pallid mugs on every program you can think of. ESPN, the muscled buck at which we’d usually nip like fleas, devoted hours of coverage to the story and had to credit us endlessly. It peeved them, and that was the fun of it.

But the wall-to-wall coverage of the story — which culminated in Te’o’s supposedly soul-baring sitdowns with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap and Katie Couric, and hoaxster Ronaiah Tuiasosopo’s two-part “Dr. Phil” extravaganza, which is to say nothing of all the ex-jocks gabbing about locker-room taunts and possible hush-hush homosexuality–only distanced us all from the truth about Lennay Kekua. Te’o told Schaap and Couric about all the hours they spent on the phone together, and the few near-misses he and Kekua had in the flesh. Nowhere was it explained satisfactorily how, in this age– the year of our lord Steve Jobs 2013 — the couple had never video chatted. (So her computer didn’t work. Did she know anyone with an iPhone?) Te’o never explained, either, why he couldn’t juggle his flights to spend a little time with his comatose lover in San Diego, because he couldn’t possibly explain it. He admitted having lied to journalists on one occasion. That’s not the worst thing an NFL player has done, but it shot through everything we were told about Te’o’s character, his courage, his incorruptibility.

And yet, when another TIME colleague was assembling one of these year-end lists, for “most over-reported stories,” he suggested the Te’o saga. (He did it within earshot, on purpose, knowing I would turn cross. I laughed but then protested.) Over-reported? Please. We still don’t know what happened! The official account of things, the one the public decided to believe after all the dust settled — that poor Manti Te’o actually believed he was deeply in love with a person who never existed — isn’t borne out by the answers he gave to Katie. I have no doubt Manti Te’o was hoaxed at one point. And I have no doubt, either, that he allowed, through obfuscation or dishonesty, the story of his dead girlfriend to become much bigger than it could have been.

Te’o has gone off to the NFL now, so the morality of it all doesn’t matter much to anyone. (Only the Golden Domers, and the college football journalists who buy into the program’s central myths, feed on that stuff.) He’s had an underwhelming, injury-filled rookie campaign with San Diego, returning to the relative anonymity befitting an inside linebacker.

But there’s still a little consequence to the story, if only as a piece of media criticism. The first thing, which we learned while reporting our story: Some sportswriters are so desperate to tell sob stories that they’ll elude the clutches of the facts, as though they were Alabama running backs in the national championship game. And the second, which we learned while defending our reporting and our conclusions: If any story appears on television long enough, bombarding people with facts and dates and long names, the public will eventually consider the matter settled. Even if the story itself is far from it.

6 comments
AlphaDog_33
AlphaDog_33

Hi Jack.  


There's something that bugs me about how Deadspin handled their reporting on this story.


You guys did an excellent job digging up information about the hoax, but I think you also did a terrible job when it came to explaining what role Te'o himself played in the hoax.  And I've always suspected that you guys tried to mislead your readers when it came to the matter of Te'o's involvement.


To that end, there are three very specific questions I want to ask.  And if you can bear the length, I'd love to get your honest response.


Mid-way through the original Te'o article, we were introduced to Diane O'Meara (aka "Reba"), and it's mentioned how:  "In a series of lengthy phone calls, [Diane O'Meara] told us everything she knew about...Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.


Now, I realize that blanket statements like those can't be taken 100% literally, but what's interesting is that nowhere in the original article do we EVER learn the details of those phone conversations.  And that's important, because Diane O'Meara had lots of first-hand knowledge about the hoax.  She shared this knowledge in TV interviews, and in interviews with the AP and the L.A. Times.  And I'm going to describe three of the biggest takeaways that Diane shared.


1.)  When Ronaiah asked for a photo of Diane holding up a sign reading "MSMK," he ALSO wanted the sign to read "December 21st, 2012."  (We know now that this was a proof-of-life photo.)  And in fact, the original, uncropped photo which Diane sent to Ronaiah contained the date: "December 21st, 2012."


2.)  Ronaiah kept hounding Diane for requests even into January.  Specifically, he wanted a photo of her saying "Good luck number #5," and a video of her saying "Good luck on the 7th."  Te'o wore #5 on his uniform, and the BCS title game was on January 7th, so it's pretty obvious those requests were meant for Manti's sake.


3.)  Ronaiah called up Diane on the evening of Monday, January 14th, and confessed to being behind the hoax.  This would've occurred about 36 hours before Deadspin published their story.


So...All that information would be very useful to a person who was investigating the hoax and who was trying to determine what role Te'o had played.  Yet none of that info was reflected in Deadspin's story.  I'm not trying to say there's a conspiracy going on here.  Rather, I'm asking, very matter-of-factly:  


1.)  Did Diane let Deadspin know that the photograph she sent to Ronaiah had "December 21st, 2012" written on it?

2.)  Did Diane share with Deadspin the details of Ronaiah's two additional requests?  

3.)  Did Diane tell you guys about Ronaiah's confession?


I realize this all happened 11 months ago, so your memory might be a bit hazy.  But just by using simple logic, the answer to those questions would have to be "yes," right?  

Martin_Anae
Martin_Anae

You talk like you all perfect..like your life don't have mishaps..so what if he has an imaginary girlfriend?? is it hurting your life? report on something worth reporting..leave the poor guy alone…you are we call a parasite, feeding off people to get by. 

joseph_dip
joseph_dip

It takes a lot of balls to criticize the media for being overly eager to report a sob story, when you yourself cited an unnamed source that said he was 80% sure Te'o was in on the hoax. 80% sure? That's absolutely horrific journalism. You defamed a young man because YOU were overly eager to tear him down. Manti was only guilty of putting too much faith in a person who preyed on his religious values and Samoan heritage to build a relationship that he thought was real. The fact that you can't believe that narrative even though no other evidence has been presented to the contrary just shows how cynical and sad you really are.

RobMetalpandaDelMedico
RobMetalpandaDelMedico

@MikeFagan @joseph_dip So far as he was embarrassed and afraid to admit it.  I think there is something to the theory that he drummed up their relationship (it's been said that his teammates were wary of his dragging the story out to the press because they felt he was willfully over-representing the relationship), but I doubt he was in on it from the beginning.