Notre Dame Defends Star Linebacker As Story Of Triumph Over Loss Unravels

Manti Te'o — a linebacker for Notre Dame and a former Heisman Trophy candidate — has come under fire for allegedly making up a girlfriend who died of cancer. Robert Siegel speaks with sports correspondent Mike Pesca for more on the story.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The University of Notre Dame is defending its star linebacker, Manti Te'o, even as Te'o's story of triumph in the face of personal loss quickly unravels. Te'o's gridiron achievements this year, following the reported death of his girlfriend, captivated the world of college football. The tale added to his prominence as a contender for the Heisman Trophy.

But in the last 36 hours, it has become clear that Te'o's long-distance heartthrob, Lennay Kekua, never existed. She was a fiction of the Internet. And now there are questions about whether Te'o was in on the hoax or duped by it, not to mention questions about why reporters didn't figure it out sooner. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick says Te'o was a victim.

JACK SWARBRICK: The pain was real. The grief was real. The affection was real and that's the nature of this sad, cruel game.

SIEGEL: NPR's Mike Pesca joins us now to talk about this. And, Mike, are we to believe the Notre Dame version of the story?

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Well, we would have to buy just the very basic premise that someone could know a fictitious person for years - and not just know them but by the end of their relationship, have such in-depth interactions, be on the phone for hours a day with a person, not just texting, not just sending Twitter accounts, but having all this discussion and having it affect him so emotionally and yet, at the same time, he never met the person in real life and didn't disclose that.

And then there are more specific details that just don't make sense unless they're somehow squared later. In October of this year, the South Bend Tribune did a story detailing the relationship and Brian Te'o, Manti's father, was quoted in-depth talking about how they had met in person, although Manti's quotes, if you parse them, never talks about in-person meeting. So why was Brian Te'o saying that?

And then there is also the question - and I think there's no way to square this part, it doesn't mean that it was all a lie - but by his own timeline, Manti Te'o found out about the hoax essentially on December 6th and after that point, he did give interviews where he talked about his girlfriend dying of cancer. So maybe that could be explained with, I was nervous or I tripped up or I didn't know what to say, but yeah, those two things can't exist at the same time.

SIEGEL: So there are questions for Manti Te'o. There are questions for Notre Dame. How about the questions for sports journalism?

PESCA: Well, you know, let's be fair. In sports journalism, there is sort of a trend towards geography at times. And, you know, if the criticism of political journalism is that they tear their subjects, I.E. politicians, down, sports journalism does tend to build them up, especially when a lot of the times that we're seeing these stories on network television that are broadcast partners with college football.

I do have to say, though, that if you just look at a fact that gets repeated and repeated, I wouldn't maybe cry foul every time it's repeated. In my own life as a reporter and your own life as a reporter, we've probably said things like, just to pick some example, the Manning brothers. Well, I've never seen a paternity test, right? I just kind of assume they're brothers. Or we talk about Lou Gehrig's 2,130 straight games. I didn't go back and look at the box score.

So sometimes there's just this fact that gets put out there and gets solidified and never checked, but I would say that there are a couple of examples of journalists who did big takeout stories like Gene Wojciechowski of ESPN or Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated, where they had a lot of access to Manti Te'o and did report this story and never caught the fact that Lennay Kekua was a fiction.

SIEGEL: Might have gone for a quote from someone in her family, let's say. How did they get duped? What was wrong there?

PESCA: I've heard both of these - let's say, Gene Wojciechowski. He said he looked up Lennay Kekua and he didn't find an obituary and he didn't find evidence of her and he asked Manti Te'o about this. And Manti Te'o just said leave it alone, the family doesn't want to talk about it. And he went ahead with reporting the story of her tragic death.

And, you know, I wouldn't fault him. He wasn't lazy. He wasn't venal. He maybe was just a little bit - he was maybe had a too much heart in that instance. Pete Thamel says he went to Notre Dame for four days, talked to dozens of people who talked about how Manti was affected by the death of his girlfriend. And, of course, according to Manti's story, then he would've believed that his girlfriend really existed.

Pete Thamel talked to a priest who talked about - said that he once met her. And he used the phrase, there were little red flags that were raised, but I guess not good enough to thoroughly check things like is she in the Stanford directory or why is there no reference to her online outside of the world of Manti Te'o. And he regrets it now.

SIEGEL: So what are we still trying to find out about this story?

PESCA: You know, so much and some of the questions that can't be squared. But I really think we need to know about the hoaxers - who were they, what was their motivation, what was Manti Te'o's thinking when he really found out about the story.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mike Pesca.

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