The Fake Girlfriend Experience
Why didn’t sportswriters catch on to Manti Te’o’s phony relationship? Because they didn’t care to look.
Manti Te'o warms up before playing against Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship game.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images.
As Deadspin laid out in brutal detail on Wednesday, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend is neither dead nor Manti Te’o’s girlfriend nor a corporeal being. Te’o and Lennay Kekua never met on the field at Stanford, never hung out together in Hawaii, and didn’t talk on the phone each night as she lay dying of leukemia. As we wait to learn more details of this amazing hoax, it’s worth examining the second-biggest mystery of the Manti Te’o fake girlfriend saga: How did the sports media come to spread this phony story?
The writer who did the most to popularize Te’o’s tale of triumph over tragedy was Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel. In late September, Thamel wrote that the Notre Dame star “played remarkably well under the most depressing of circumstances—the death of his girlfriend and grandmother within [a] 24-hour span before the Irish's game against Michigan State.” (The part about his grandmother's death is true.) In the Oct. 1 edition of the magazine, which placed Te’o on the cover and noted that the linebacker “has restored the shine to the Golden Dome,” Thamel reported the precise date of Lennay Kekua’s supposedly almost-deadly car accident (April 28) and stated that her “relatives told [Te’o] that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice.” And in a Dec. 20 piece, Thamel explained that Kekua wrote Te’o a series of inspirational notes before her passing, and that her brother Kainoa and sister U’ilani “would read the letters to Manti” to help soothe his pain. "It's given me a sense of strength and perseverance," the Heisman Trophy finalist told the Sports Illustrated writer.
If Thamel or anyone else at SI had used Nexis or Google, they would’ve discovered that Lennay Kekua (not to mention her brother and sister) didn’t exist. A reporter doesn’t expect to learn that his subject's dead girlfriend is nothing but a fake Twitter avatar. But a reporter, especially at a fact-checked magazine like SI, also doesn’t generally put someone’s name into print and say that she smashed up her car on April 28 without confirming the spelling and the wreckage. That assumption of basic competence filters down to everyone else in the sports media ecosystem: If Manti Te’o’s story of woe is in Sports Illustrated, then it must be true.
So why didn’t Thamel and his cohorts at ESPN and elsewhere figure out they were all on a Catfish-ing exhibition? Because they fell victim to confirmation bias. Even before his great 2012 season, Te’o’s golden-as-the-dome image had been cemented. He was a humble leader, a Boy Scout, a religious fellow who put family first, a player who returned to Notre Dame for his senior season because, in the words of his father, “he was led there to do something.”
Manti Te’o was a sports hero, and his standout play this year demanded the details to flesh out that storyline. There’s a journalistic cliché: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. For sports hagiographers, it’s more like: If he makes a lot of tackles, don’t you dare check anything. Stardom demands that feature writers color in the lines with off-field greatness. And Te’o’s character, it seemed, was unimpeachable. After all, there had been all these stories about how humble and religious he was, and how he’d been led to Notre Dame to do something.
There must be sports villains to stand alongside the heroes, of course. That brings us to Pete Thamel’s other recent college football opus, and the other kind of confirmation bias. In the Oct. 22 issue of SI, Thamel and Thayer Evans wrote a cover story on Tyrann Mathieu called “Trials of the Honey Badger.” Mathieu, a 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist, was kicked off the LSU football team prior to the 2012 season, reportedly because he smoked marijuana. For the SI piece, Thamel and Evans went to Louisiana and performed the kind of dogged shoe-leather journalism that nobody bothered to do when reporting on Manti Te’o, humble Boy Scout. Their prize finding: Mathieu’s face appeared on a nightclub flyer, which might possibly constitute an NCAA violation.
In addition to playing the part of NCAA enforcers, Thamel and Evans want us to know that Mathieu is at a “crossroads.” “Three decades ago his father came to the same point,” they write, making a comparison that’s entirely unsupported by their reporting. The Honey Badger’s crime is smoking weed—he was arrested on marijuana possession charges after the SI piece came out—a practice that doesn’t land the typical college student on the cover of a national magazine. Mathieu’s father, by contrast, is in prison for killing a man. Thamel and Evans want us to believe, I guess, that Mathieu’s going to murder someone if he doesn’t straighten up.
The Honey Badger, like Manti Te’o, is a cartoon character. But since Mathieu found himself on the sports world’s naughty list—troubled athlete, at the crossroads—he was the athlete who got a vetting more suited for a presidential candidate.
SI’s Mathieu and Te’o features both infantilize their subjects in their own way. In his Oct. 1 cover story, Thamel writes that Te’o has “linked the program’s glorious past with a promising future,” helping redeem Notre Dame from “the George O’Leary résumé fiasco, the death of student videographer Declan Sullivan in a tower collapse and the allegations of sexual misconduct lodged against a player by a St. Mary’s College student who committed suicide soon after.”
No matter what we learn about Te’o in the coming days, this black-and-white narrative—good man fixes bad things—enlightens no one and does the athlete no favors.
According to Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Te’o was the “perfect mark” for this fake girlfriend hoax, not its perpetrator. “He is a guy who is so willing to believe in others,” Swarbrick said at a press conference.
Whether or not that’s true about Te’o, it’s an apt description of his chroniclers. Sports Illustrated looked at the linebacker and saw a classic template, not a human being who demanded the scantest thought or scrutiny. In the end, they got back the exact amount of effort they put in. This was journalism as fill-in-the-blank exercise, the creation of a simple story that tells you what you already know. In this case, what we already knew happened not to be the truth. If only Manti Te’o hadn’t been such a boy scout. Then we might have known how interesting he was all along.
Update, Jan. 16, 10:40 p.m.: ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski, who voiced a five-minute video feature on Te'o's tragic losses, says he was unable to find Lennay Kekua's obituary or documentation of her car accident. He didn't follow up, though, because the Notre Dame player "said the family would prefer not to be contacted" and "at that moment, you simply think that you have to respect those wishes."
Update, Jan. 17, 4:30 p.m.: In an interview with Dan Patrick, Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel says he happened upon some "small red flags" while reporting his Manti Te'o cover story. Those red flags: no obituary, no death notice, no trace of Lennay Kekua in LexisNexis' public records search. Thamel says he passed along those holes to his editors, but convinced himself that Kekua's absence from LexisNexis wasn't necessarily significant because "sometimes when you're 20 and 21 you don't have a footprint."
Update, Jan. 17, 5:15 p.m.: And here is the full transcript of Thamel's interview with Te'o, in which the linebacker unspools the story of his girlfriend's death in incredible detail. The most telling moment: After Te'o describes Kekua emerging from a coma, Thamel says, "This is unbelievable."