Goshen News, Goshen, IN

January 18, 2013

COLUMN ONE: Te’o hoax leaves journalists red-faced


SOUTH BEND — Here on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, not even the constant gaze of Touchdown Jesus could have seen this one coming.

In one of the more bizarre sports stories of recent memory, it was determined Wednesday that the alleged girlfriend of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o never existed. Her supposed death, one of the main storylines of the Fighting Irish season and Te’o’s eventual emergence as a Heisman Trophy finalist, never happened according to a report published on Deadspin.com.

Te’o himself confirmed that report with a statement Monday that he was the victim of a hoax in which he developed an online relationship with a person he believed to be Lennay Kekua, a 21-year-old Stanford student who he was told died Sept. 11 from leukemia.

Kekua, the Deadspin.com report vetted, never existed. The report went on to quote an unnamed friend of a source that they were “80 percent” certain that Te’o was complicit in hoax, alluding he used the story for self promotion in his bid for the Heisman Trophy.

Te’o, who is reportedly in Florida preparing for the NFL combine, has yet to speak publicly about the matter other than releasing a statement to ESPN declaring he was the victim of hoax, not the perpetrator. Notre Dame officials are standing behind Te’o.

The news of Te’o’s golden blunder could not be escaped Thursday. It dominated sports talk television, radio and websites. Even cable news networks were on the campus quads Thursday setting up live shots as students shuffled to and from class. And this was on a day cyclist Lance Armstrong was coming out that he had used performance-enhancing drugs en route to seven Tour de France titles. Not exactly a slow news day.

Obviously this story is in mid-stream, but regardless of how it turns out for Te’o, this is no doubt a refresher course in the principles of quality journalism.

Other than the Deadspin reporters who connected the complex Twitter-sphere dots with the embellished accounts of the relationship in the media, we all whiffed on this one.

Respected ESPN reporter Gene Wojciechowski was one of the first to broadcast the story of Te’o’s girlfriend nationally. Te’o told Wojciechowski that Kekua was the most beautiful person he’s ever met because of her character. There’s a vagueness in Te’o’s comments that in retrospect all journalists wish they would have pounced on.

Wojciechowski even admitted as much, saying in radio interviews Thursday that he looked for information about Kekua’s death in popular databases, but came up empty. When he asked Te’o if he could speak with Kekua’s family, he said he was told that the family wanted to maintain its privacy. He respected that.

 It was a story simply to good not to tell, despite the journalistic hangup of verification. After all, Wojeciechowski —  who is a 30-year sports journalism veteran who has also worked for The Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News and Chicago Tribune — got the story straight from Te’o’s mouth. Why would he lie?

Then there is Te’o’s father, Brian, who told Eric Hansen of The South Bend Tribune that Manti and Kekua met after a 2009 football game in Stanford and that Kekua would come to Hawaii to visit Manti and the Te’o family during the summer. That account, apparently isn’t true either since Manti Te’o admitted Wednesday that he never met Kekua face to face. Their relationship, he said, existed entirely online and over the phone.

Obviously that story was published and the myth continued to snowball into the avalanche it is today. It got to the point that Te’o’s tale evaporated into the public domain of perceived fact seemingly re-told over and over around sportswriter campfires.

That said, I’m not here to throw stones. All journalists live in glass houses and we are constantly reminded of our own valid flaws each time the paper comes out. I have yet to put out the perfect paper.

The Goshen News, in fact, wasn’t spared in this Dumpster fire of a story either. We fell for Manti’s story, whether he believed it to be true or not. I mentioned it in a column about Te’o’s impact on Notre Dame’s resurgence prior to the BCS National Championship game earlier this month.

Te’o talked about his relationship with Kekua during his media availability in early October. The following quotes appeared in News Sports Editor David Vantress’s report on Oct. 5.

“Something my girlfriend always stressed to me,” Te’o said, “was always being humble and if anything, I think this experience has truly humbled me and strengthened my relationship with my Heavenly Father.”

Te’o added: “Yeah, it was definitely hard. That has to be the hardest thing that I’ve had to do so far; to be able to operate, and to be able to try to continue with my daily routine, but knowing that I just lost two women (It is confirmed that Te’o actually did lose his grandmother on Sept. 11, 2012, the same day Kekua supposedly died) that I truly loved. That was the hardest thing ... And the other hardest thing was my girlfriend’s service was the day of Michigan’s game. And I remember when I found out. I knew when they were going to close the casket and all that stuff, and it was during walk through. And I remember I asked Coach Diaco, ‘Coach, what time is it?’ And he said, “It’s 12:01.”  And that would be 9:00,  9:01, California time and 9:00 is when they closed the casket for my girlfriend, so I had a moment then.”

We’re all having a moment now, one we have yet to figure out. It’s creepy watching video clip after video clip of Te’o talking about Kekua, a ghost who now appears to be a complete fabrication.

Te’o’s silence isn’t helping. He’s gone from being the most decorated college football player of all time to the most ridiculed. Despite his and Notre Dame’s assertions that Te’o is the victim of this hoax, there are still plenty of doubts. We really do need to hear from him.

In the meantime, all journalists, including myself, should use this as a textbook lesson that the ethics of quality journalism should always be in force, regardless of the story someone may want to tell and we think someone may want to read.

Michael Wanbaugh is the managing editor of The Goshen News. He began covering Notre Dame football in 1996.