Manti Te’o: The case of the fake girlfriend

Was the Notre Dame linebacker duped?

The story was “heartbreaking and inspirational,” said Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey in Star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o led his team to the national championship game this season, despite suffering heartbreak when his beloved girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died of leukemia on the very same day his grandmother passed away. The devout Mormon’s tragic tale was burnished by glowing stories in Sports Illustrated and onESPN, and inspired tributes from across college football. The only problem? “There was no Lennay Kekua.”Te’o’s cancer-stricken girlfriend never existed, but was a fictional persona allegedly created by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a Hawaiian friend of Te’o’s who pretended to be Kekua online, and made his female cousin “play” Kekua on the telephone. The linebacker admitted last week that he had been conducting a love affair with “Kekua” since 2009 without ever meeting her—but claimed that until December, he was ignorant of his friend’s “sick joke.”

“Why am I not convinced?” said Andrea Peyser in the New York Post. Te’o’s mythic tale of playing with a broken heart to honor his dead girlfriend made him a figure of national admiration, and helped him finish second in Heisman Trophy voting. His insistence that his friend was duping him all this time “doesn’t pass the smell test.” Te’o’s story does sound implausible, said Aisha Harris in, but such hoaxes are increasingly common in a world where relationships are conducted primarily through texting, Twitter, and Facebook. The MTV show Catfish documents numerous instances where lonely, credulous people are duped into Internet romances for months or years by people they’ve never met. Te’o may have ignored the “bright red flags” surrounding his imaginary relationship out of “loneliness, insecurity, and perhaps a misplaced faith in the power of love.”

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