Notre Dame Draws Questions Over Response to Football Star's Hoax Girlfriend

Jeff Gross, Getty Images

During a storybook season that ended in the national-championship game, it turns out that Notre Dame's star linebacker, Manti Te'o, had a girlfriend who was just a story. The university was forced to react swiftly to news of the hoax, experts said, because of the trajectory of scandal in a social-media age.
January 17, 2013

Athletics leaders across the country raised questions on Thursday about the University of Notre Dame's handling of a sensational story about how its star football player was mixed up in a bizarre hoax.

The story centers on Manti Te'o, a Heisman Trophy finalist and the impetus behind Notre Dame's improbable run to the national-championship game. According to various news-media reports, Mr. Te'o played this past season under a heavy burden. In the span of six hours last September, the stories went, Mr. Te'o learned of the death of two important people in his life: his grandmother and his girlfriend.

The player's perseverance through those losses, and his inspired play in leading the Fighting Irish to one nail-biting victory after another before losing its final game, made for the perfect fairy-tale script.

It turns out, however, that the girlfriend's death was a fabrication, Deadspin reported on Wednesday. Even weirder, the Web site said, she never even existed. His relationship with the woman—known as Lennay Kekua, whom Mr. Te'o now says he never met in person—was, in his words, just someone's sick joke.

The Deadspin article raises questions about Mr. Te'o's possible complicity in the matter. According to his Twitter posts, he appears to know a man whom Deadspin identified as a possible perpetrator of the ruse.

Hours after the story broke, the article had already attracted more than one million hits (it was over three million by Thursday afternoon), and Notre Dame went on the offensive. In a news conference in South Bend, Ind., Jack Swarbrick, the university's athletic director, vigorously defended Mr. Te'o, calling him a "great young man, great student ... that we have been so proud to have be a member of our family."

"Nothing I've learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te'o one iota," Mr. Swarbrick asserted, according to a transcript of the news conference.

Mr. Te'o says he realized he was being played after he received a telephone call from the supposedly dead girlfriend. He then notified coaches, on December 26, and the university opened an independent investigation.

While there are still many unanswered questions in the case, and Mr. Swarbrick said on Wednesday that "this is Manti's story to tell," he repeatedly defended the player, describing him as the victim of a "cruel, cruel hoax."

'Their Reputation on the Line'

Some athletics officials at other universities were surprised at how quickly Notre Dame had responded, and felt Mr. Swarbrick should not have offered such a full-throated defense without giving the story more time to play out.

"Cleary they're in his corner," said one associate director of athletics in a Bowl Championship Series conference. "You hope the kid's telling Notre Dame the truth because they're putting their reputation on the line defending him."

Others understood the university's response, saying that cynicism in social media had forced Notre Dame to react swiftly.

"If you wait too long, you appear detached," said Kenny Mossman, a senior associate athletics director at the University of Oklahoma, who works on strategic-communications issues. "But if you respond too quickly, you can be out in front of where the facts may fall."

Mr. Swarbrick, who practiced law for nearly 30 years before taking over as Notre Dame's athletic director, in 2008, is widely viewed as one of the more thoughtful and measured people in college sports. During Notre Dame's storybook season, he spent time around Mr. Te'o, and says he met with him for multiple hours during the investigation.

And yet, as close as athletics officials get to players, they don't always have the full picture of their lives, said Chris Freet, an associate athletic director at the University of Miami.

"You want to believe their stories are great, but we're talking about 18- to 22-year-old students," he said. "Sometimes your desire to believe in these kids can leave you a little naïve to some of the risks that are there."

Less than 24 hours after the story hit, athletics leaders were reluctant to draw too many lessons from it. They said that plenty more could still come out.

But some officials said the story was a reminder about the dangers of social media and the need to educate players on its benefits and downsides.

"If we're going to push these young people into public forums," said Oklahoma's Mr. Mossman, "we owe it to them to offer some level of protection."