Part of the appeal of the investigative report on Manti Te’o and the non-existence of Lennay Kekua that Deadspin published on January 16th was its lack of a conclusion. Yes, the wonderful research by Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey left little doubt that a hoax had been perpetrated, most certainly on us, and possibly on Manti Te’o. However, there was a sense of open sourcing to the story. Like a software developer more concerned with creating something useful than actually making money from the creation, Deadspin left possibilities open for readers to discover on their own. The website quoted someone who was “80 percent sure,” and left hints as to how those using social media might find more information through online searches.
In contrast, it’s been widely judged that ESPN, who was made aware of something fishy to do with Te’o's dead girlfriend a day before Deadspin, fumbled the story by attempting to land an interview with Te’o prior to publishing anything, and generally taking too long to track a story that took place largely through social media and online technology. However, even if they had been timelier with a report on Te’o and Kekua, I doubt that the story would have had the same appeal. I doubt that the story would’ve left room for ownership by anyone else other than ESPN.
Whether this was the intent of Deadspin, or not, with its style of reporting, is irrelevant. It is what happened, and as such it has created not just a number of facets to this story yet to be fully realized, but a number of stories to this story that have yet to be written.
In general, we’ve all been so focused on Te’o himself, and asking if he was a part of the scam or if he was actually duped himself into believing in a sick online girlfriend who died, that we haven’t yet fully appreciated Notre Dame’s role in keeping this a secret or massaging the player’s message during interviews after they became aware.
Additionally, as we begin to read multiple news agencies produce a post mortem on the reporting of this story, and one or two condemnation of sports media’s over-reliance on sappy narratives, we haven’t yet had too much to read on the actual lasting effects of a website beating the rest of the mainstream media to a revealing story of this magnitude. There’s been little talk of how Deadspin’s forgoing of seeking information from a direct source to avoid a cover-up attempt possibly led to improved intrigue without lessening the actual story.
While we may never know the answers to the questions to do with Te’o that we find ourselves asking right now – thank you, public relations handlers – there is hope that in the days to come, these other stories begin to emerge, and we glean a greater understanding of Notre Dame’s role in the deception, and the effect that this story will have on future media coverage of sports.
In the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to create a timeline, not only on the story of Te’o and Kekua, but also of the media’s handling of the story, both before and after Deadspin’s report, as well as Notre Dame’s involvement, or what we know of their investigation into the matter.
November 28th, 2009: Manti Te’o and Lennay Kekua reportedly meet following a Notre Dame game at Stanford. Te’o later claims that he wasn’t introduced to Kekua until 2010. They become online friends, and stay in touch. Their relationship eventually develops romantically. It’s later revealed that there was no meeting in person between the two.
April 28th, 2012: Kekua is hospitalized after a car accident. Two months later, it’s discovered during her rehab from the accident that she is dying of leukaemia. Te’o speaks with her nightly via telephone and online.
September 10th, 2012: Kekua is released from hospital, and appears to be on the path toward recovery.
September 12th, 2012: Within six hours of his 72-year-old grandmother, Annette Santiago, dying, Te’o is informed by Kekua’s older brother that she, too, has passed away.
September 15th, 2012: Notre Dame beats Michigan State, holding the Spartans to a measly three points, thanks in large part to Te’o's dozen tackles on the day.
September 22nd, 2012: On the day of Kekua’s funeral, Te’o, following his girlfriend’s wishes, plays in the game against Michigan, collecting two interceptions and forcing two others, as Notre Dame goes to 4-0 with a 13-6 victory. Many in the crowd watching the game wear leis to support the Hawaiian born Te’o.
October 1st, 2012: Te’o is featured in a cover story for Sports Illustrated, entitled The Full Manti. The article, written by senior writer Pete Thamel, focuses on the player overcoming the tragic deaths of his grandmother and his girlfriend, who had passed away within six hours of each other.
October 2nd, 2012: In an interview with ESPN for “College GameDay,” Te’o said Kekua’s last words to him were “I love you.”
November 23rd, 2012: Te’o meets Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the alleged ring leader of the hoax, for the very first time, presumably without being aware of his involvement with Kekua.
December 6th, 2012: Te’o receives a phone call from the supposedly deceased Kekua, informing Te’o that she had faked her death in order to elude drug dealers.
December 8th, 2012: In a scrum with reporters ahead of the Heisman Trophy ceremony, Te’o says, “I don’t like cancer at all. I lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer.” He finishes second in the award voting to Texas A&M freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel.
December 26th, 2012: Te’o informs Notre Dame of the possibility that he has been fooled into believing that Kekua was real, when she actually was not.
January 2nd, 2013: Notre Dame hires private investigators to look into the situation. The outside organization spends the next two days researching electronic databases to come to the conclusion that Kekua did not exist.
January 6th, 2013: Te’o is sent photos from his hotel lobby by people associated with Tuiasosopo, while he was in his room the night before the National Championship game in Miami. He receives a telephone call from this group informing him that they were waiting for Kekua, and asking if she was with him. He hangs up.
January 7th, 2013: Alabama defeats Notre Dame by the score of 42-14 in the BCS National Championship Game.
January 10th, 2013: Tom Condon, from Creative Artists Agency, who advise Te’o, informs ESPN that there is a situation with the linebacker’s girlfriend, but he does not go into detail.
January 11th, 2013: A two-paragraph email from an anonymous tipster is received by Deadspin staff. Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey spend the next five days collecting evidence on the existence/non-existence of Kekua, and shaping their investigative report.
January 16th, 2013: Deadspin publishes a story entitled, Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax. Notre Dame responds in a matter of hours, first releasing a statement expressing that they were aware of the situation, and then holding a press conference where they suggest that Te’o was duped by the hoax, and certainly not a perpetrator. Te’o releases his own statement confirming what the university is saying. Tuiasosopo, whom Deadspin identifies as being the perpetrator of the hoax, apologizes to Te’o via direct message on Twitter.
January 17th, 2013: ESPN sends Jeremy Schaap and Sean Fitzgerald to Bradenton, Florida to interview Te’o on camera. Te’o's representatives shut this idea down.
January 18th, 2013: Schapp interviews Te’o only after agreeing to several ground rules put in place by the football player’s public relations expert, Matthew Hiltzik. These include no video cameras, limited photographs, and two minutes of audio recording. During the question and answer period, Te’o claims that it was Tuiasosopo behind the hoax. He reveals the direct messages that Tuiasosopo sent him two days before the interview.
January 19th, 2013: Following the interview, Schapp sends live updates to ESPN from location. He describes Te’o as being credulous. Later in the day, a partial transcript is made available.
January 23rd, 2013: In a television interview with Katie Couric (who also employs Hiltzik), Te’o reveals that he briefly lied about Kekua after discovering she never existed. He continues to claim that he had no part in perpetrating the hoax.