American Football: The linebacker and the fantasy girl

One of the brightest young talents in American sport, Manti Te'o broke fans' hearts with the sad tale of his girlfriend's death. There's one problem: she never really existed
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It was enough to melt the heart of the most cynical sports reporter. The star college football player grief-stricken by the death, on the very same day, of his grandmother and adored girlfriend, yet who puts personal adversity aside to lead his team through an unbeaten season. Yet there is one small problem with this compelling tale of tragedy and triumph. The girlfriend, whom our player described as his “soulmate” and “the love of his life”, never existed.

You might have thought that the dark opera of Lance Armstrong had cornered the current market for deception in American sport. You would be wrong. Today, on the very day he was explaining his serial misdeeds to Oprah Winfrey, Armstrong was reduced to an afterthought, on the internet and cable TV at least, by the bizarre, scarcely believable story of Manti Te’o.

Born in Hawaii, Te’o is a linebacker, or defensive blocker, for the Fighting Irish, the football team of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. His sporting prowess alone made him a minor national celebrity. Then in mid-September, came the harrowing news about his grandmother and girlfriend. The latter was called Lennay Kekua, Te’o said, a student from Stanford University in California who had been in a serious car crash, before dying of leukemia at the age of just 22.

And in the weeks that followed, the legend only grew. Te’o gave an interview to the sports network ESPN, telling of his irreplaceable loss. Last October, The South Bend Tribune, Notre Dame’s local newspaper, ran a touching story of how the couple had met when Notre Dame was playing a game at Stanford back in 2009. They “exchanged glances, handshakes and phone numbers that fateful weekend… she was gifted in music, multi-lingual, had dreams grounded in reality and the talent to catch up to them”. They started out as just friends, the paper quoted Te’o’s father Brian as saying, “Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii when Manti was home, so he would meet with her there. But within the last year, they became a couple.” Every day they talked, even as her illness worsened. And then on September 12, she died.

Se non e vero e ben trovato say the Italians, age-old master blurrers of reality and myth. Roughly translated, it means: if it’s not true, it should be – or, as applied to a news item, one that’s too good to check. And thus it seems to have been with Lennay Kekua. A call to Stanford would have established that no person of that name had ever studied there. A check with Social Security would have discovered no record of her death. But Te’o was a nice guy. It was a fantastic story: run with it.

What happened next was stranger still. On 6 December, according to Te’o’s version of events, he received a call from his dead girlfriend’s number, and the same voice told him she in fact was not dead. On 26 December, he went to Notre Dame authorities and told them what had happened. The University launched its own private investigation. Even as the Irish took on Alabama in the college football championship game on 7 January, no-one knew.

And the secret held until Wednesday, when the sports website Deadspin, following up an email tipoff, finally broke the story. And the rest of us are left to choose. Either Te’o (a very capable student as well as a sports star) was a victim of an amazingly elaborate three-year hoax – or he was its perpetrator.

Thus far, both player and university maintain he was the former. As Te’o now tells it, the relationship was a virtual one, unfolding on the phone and the internet. He had been, he said, “the victim of a sick joke and constant lies,” trapped in a situation that was “painful and humiliating.” And Notre Dame for now is standing four square behind its man, who had been victim of “a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.”

And it certainly wouldn’t be the first of its kind. In fact, were anyone else involved, the entire business would be just one more weird tale of online dating – another example of ‘catfishing,’ where someone falls for a person who creates a false identity on the internet. But Manti Te’o is different. On the eventual outcome of this affair, a huge amount is riding.

Think university sport in Britain, and there springs to mind a Corinthian idyll, unsullied by filthy lucre. But US college football is a ferociously competitive multi-billion dollar industry, as keenly followed as the mighty NFL itself (and in some parts of the country even more keenly).

For everyone involved the stakes are enormous. And as a string of lurid scandals demonstrates, from the cover-up of a massive child sex abuse scandal at Penn State to case after case of illegal rewards (cash, equipment, even prostitutes) offered to the best players, the ends – i.e success on the field – justifies the means.

And might it have been like that for Manti Te’o? An inspirational story of doomed love story would do him no harm in his chase for the coveted Heisman trophy, awarded each year to the best college player, and which guarantees a mega-millions contract with an NFL team. As it was, he finished second in the 2012 Heisman, but nonetheless was set for an extremely lucrative professional career. And he may yet enjoy one. Even if it turns out Te’o did concoct the entire story, America is the eternal land of second chances. Like the top football colleges, the NFL wants the best players and whatever the cyber mystery surrounding his love life, Te’o beyond doubt is one of them.

But that is to get ahead of events. The final chapter of the Te’o saga is yet to be written. Did he really fall in love with a woman who didn’t exist, tenderly nursing her through her final illness? Or did he and his friends and family cynically manipulate public emotions to further his career? Or did what started as a prank simply spin out of control, consumed in a media firestorm?

And when the truth does emerge, will anyone believe it?