PR Disaster: Notre Dame Star Manti Te’o’s Fake Dead Girlfriend

It was every sports journalist’s dream story: Promising college senior, Heisman trophy runner-up and near-certain first round NFL draft pick Manti Te’o suffers the deaths of his grandmother and his beautiful, supportive girlfriend within 24 hours–just before dominating the field in his team’s upset victory and continuing his streak as one of the nation’s most promising college football players. His heartbreaking tale of grief and victory quickly spreads beyond the world of sports.

One problem, though: it wasn’t true.

Deadspin broke the astonishing story yesterday as a web of complex lies promoted by some of our most respected publications began to unravel and the damage control campaign began.

A summary for those who haven’t been following: Manti Te’o is a gifted football player and devout Mormon from Hawaii who claimed, via his Twitter feed and various public statements, to have developed a relationship with a woman known as Lennay Kekua who he supp0sedly met after a 2009 game between Stanford and his team, Notre Dame. She had a Twitter account with which Te’o frequently interacted, expressing his love and encouraging his fans to follow her sister (both fake accounts were later deleted).

Then came the news that, right after the (real) death of Manti’s beloved grandmother last September, Kekua passed away from leukemia approximately a month after suffering a serious car accident. Manti doesn’t attend her funeral because she had insisted that he not miss a game. South Bend Tribune fleshed out the story through interviews with Te’o before Sports Illustrated, ESPN, CBS, the New York Post, The Associated Press and pretty much everybody else in the media world reported on it. Someone set up a charity in Kekua’s name. Manti Te’o was an American classic: the tragic hero.

And then things began to fall apart.

First some Twitter users hinted that Kekua’s account was a fake. Then a California woman recognized the supposed picture of the dead woman as a photo from her own Facebook account. More details emerged implicating a family friend of Te’o…it’s a long and complex story that we don’t have room to fully explain here. Let’s just say fraud was revealed and big PR decisions were made.

Notre Dame, for example, decided to stick by its biggest star. First the university’s spokesman said:

On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia.

You don’t say! Te’o also released a statement responding to the story:

This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her.

Wait, he claimed in interviews to have met her in person after a game, but now says that he never actually saw her but fell in love with her over social media, never aware that she didn’t really exist? And Notre Dame is backing him up? Pardon us while we call bullsh*t. The whole story raises so many questions, but we have to say this looks like the world’s worst publicity stunt, designed to secure the fortunes of a young man who already had a very, very promising future in pro football. And journalists fell for it because it was just too good.

The only thing we know for sure: Manti Te’o, Notre Dame, Sports Illustrated, The South Bend Tribune and many others have some explaining to do. And those mealy-mouthed press releases aren’t gonna cut it.

Get ready for some very awkward press conferences. Damage control specialists: it’s your time to shine!