Food for Thought

01.17.13

Three Theories on Manti Te’o

How could a college football star have a fake girlfriend? Was he hoaxed, or was he the hoaxster? Josh Dzieza offers three possible versions of the story.

Manti Te’o was the hero of the college football season, overcoming the loss of both his grandmother and his girlfriend on the same day to lead his team to victory over Michigan State. But then Deadspin broke the news that Lennay Kekua was nothing but an online figment, compiled from stolen Facebook pictures, possibly by Te’o’s friend Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Te’o says he was the victim of a hoax, but others are skeptical that he could have been suckered for so long. Below, three theories on how the Catfish-meets-Lifetime scandal might have come about.

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Joe Raymond/AP

1. The theory: Te’o was actually fooled. Te’o says he didn’t find out Kekua was fake till early December, when he received a call from the number of the supposedly deceased Kekua. Henry Blodget believes Te’o could be telling the truth, and this sort of thing does happen all the time: every day lonely people are conned into sending money overseas so their online love can buy a plane ticket to visit them. In 2007 psychologist Robert Epstein, who specializes in love and relationships, of all things, was fooled by a comely robot (!) in a chatroom. 

Does it stand up? Maybe. The hoax would’ve had to go on for an awfully long time without Te’o cottoning on. One would think he would’ve tried to visit Kekua at some point, especially when she was hospitalized after her car accident. But then maybe he did suspect something on some level and was deliberately not visiting. The heart has reasons we cannot know, and so on. If a psychologist can be fooled by a chatbot, then a football player can be tricked by his friends—Tuiasosopo on Twitter and someone pretending to be Kekua on the phone.

But what friends! We don’t know exactly what Tuiasosopo’s relationship to Te’o is: sources tell Deadspin they were family friends; Tuiasosopo came to Te’o’s games; Te’o plugged Tuiasosopo’s band on Twitter. There would’ve had to be some serious bad blood between them for Tuiasosopo to kill Te’o’s fake girlfriend at the exact time Te’o lost his grandmother. There's also the complicating fact that Te'o continued to talk about Kekua after he says he learned she was a hoax. 

2. The theory: Te’o was in on it from the beginning. Deadspin notes that Kekua’s death and the heavy publicizing of their relationship coincided with Te’o’s push for the Heisman trophy. His 20–3 victory over Michigan State, shortly after receiving news of both his grandmother’s and his girlfriend’s deaths, solidified Te’o’s status as the heartbreaking, heartwarming story of the season and could have played a role in his being named a Heisman finalist. 

Another version of the “Te’o was always in on it” plot is that Te’o, a devout Mormon, is gay, and Kekua was meant to distract from his romantic life. This is the theory currently headlining Outsports.com.

Does the theory stand up? Maybe, but probably not. It would be an awfully complicated and roundabout way of garnering Heisman goodwill. He would’ve had to cultivate a fake online relationship for more than a year before killing off his fake inamorata. Not only would that be a lot of work, it’s also a huge risk for someone who was already a Heisman contender. Though it’s possible that Te’o knew the sports press was more gullible than anyone suspected.

As for the “Te’o was in the closet” theory, that holds even less water. Plenty of people stay in the closet without resorting to complicated plots involving fake online girlfriends. Furthermore, Te’o is a devout Mormon, and it’s totally acceptable to be a celibate football star for religious reasons—look at Tebow. He could’ve deflected questions about his romantic life by saying he’s saving himself for marriage. And according to College Spun, Te’o was seeing several women on campus.

3. The theory: a prank gone out of control. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a family friend of Te’o’s and the man believed to be behind the Kekua hoax, had fooled at least one other person into dating the nonexistent Lennay. That person figured out Lennay was a hoax after about a month. What if it just took Te’o a little longer to find out?

The first evidence of Te’o and Kekua’s relationship is in October 2011, when Te’o tweeted at her. By January 2012 they were officially a couple, or at least he started tweeting the hashtag #LMK, for Lennay Marie Kekua. That means they were “together” for at least nine months before Kekua died. Suppose during that time Te’o told teammates, friends, and family about Kekua; suppose he told his parents a story about meeting at a game, because he was embarrassed to say they met on Twitter (most of the details about their relationship come from Te’o’s father).

Suppose at some point during those nine months, Te’o figures out it’s Tuiasosopo behind the Twitter account, but he’s already told too many people about Kekua to admit he’d been the victim of a hoax without embarrassing himself, so he starts to play along. By the time September rolls around, Te’o’s growing fame is causing the hoax to unravel, and it’s way too late to come clean without damaging his brand, so he and Tuiasosopo decide to kill Kekua off. If this was a plan to brush the Kekua hoax under the rug, it backfired, because her Lifetime-worthy death (car crash and leukemia?) only made her more a part of the Te’o myth. If it was a plan to strengthen the Te’o myth, it worked right up until it didn’t.

Does the theory stand up? Mostly. Again, this is all speculation, but this theory makes sense of both Te’o and Notre Dame’s statements: they’re half truths. In this theory, Te’o was the victim of a hoax but then became an accessory to it. Possibly out of innocent embarrassment at being had, possibly out of Heisman ambitions.

But questions remain: Why not kill Kekua in the car accident? Why throw in leukemia? And why kill her at all rather than just say they broke up? If Te’o was in on it, the overdetermined soapiness of Kekua’s demise suggests he wasn’t simply trying to put the hoax behind him.