Planted deep within Deadspin’s exhaustive investigative report into rumors around Notre Dame star Manti Te’o’s now fictional girlfriend stood these words “There was no Lennay Kekua.” A touching yet tragic story flipped on its head.
The relationship between Kekua and Te'o made headlines when he played an "inspired" game against rival Michigan State, resulting in a major win for the program. The South Bend Tribune first reported that Te'o's grandmother and supposed girlfriend had died within 24 hours of each other between September 11-12, 2012. Kekua died of leukemia first discovered following a car accident in early 2012. His grandmother, from an unnamed illness.
Te'o told stories (and the media listened intently) of overnight calls to Kekua as she passed in and out of conciousness on what would eventually be her fictitious death bed. He was revered for his steadfast dedication to his ailing counterpart, and even more for his on-field commitment to hard play. He was runner up for the Heisman trophy in 2012. How and when this fabrication started is tricky, and involves a strange online relationship between a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. All we know for sure is that Kekua only existed through a series of false online profiles with pictures of a girl Deadspin quotes anonymously as "Reba."
Weeks from now, the initial public explosion of emotion and disbelief will subside. Te’o will likely lose hundreds of thousands in potential endorsements from a damaged image and an incalculable amount of respect from fans for an extremely questionable character. Notre Dame and its football program will have now have a black mark on its legendary reputation.
The stinging realization that Te’o may have intentionally played the heartstrings of football of fans across the country by creating a false, tragedy-stricken persona to advance his own public image is tough to swallow. Even tougher to grasp is how this all slipped through the cracks of local and national media in the sports world and beyond.
Unfortunately, our questions far outnumber the solutions. The Deadspin report calls into question the journalism standards of some our most trusted sources (Associated Press, ESPN) that failed to fact check with the same fine-toothed comb as an online sports news aggregator.
That said, a few tenets of media and crisis relations stand strong as the sports world looks for answers:
- A quick response doesn’t always put you in the drivers seat. Notre Dame demonstrated it’s unconditional support for a student-athlete by echoing his statement only a few hours after the story broke. However, Twitter profiles, cross-referenced news stories and deleted tweets dominate Deadspin’s evidence, giving it more credibility with readers who seek the truth. Allow enough time to issue an intelligent, honest response.
- Fact-check everything. No matter how attention grabbing, a story is nothing without rock-solid facts. Social media and public records present an opportunity to question everything, and that power does not lie solely in the hands of journalists anymore. If the story being told is your own, understand any hole in your story can bring your credibility and integrity down in flames.
- Realize what you put on social media is there for life. Even though tweets were deleted, Twitter profiles erased, Deadspin was still able to research and gather a timeline of who, where and what was said. Just because you think it’s offline doesn’t mean that Google or other sites haven't already captured it.
- Nothing is too big to fail, so be ready with a plan for when it does. Every organization must have a crisis plan flexible enough to handle a wide variety of issues.
The Te’o/Kekua story is perplexing and there is much to be revealed. Was he just another “catfishing” victim or an attention-hungry athlete looking to make a name for himself in a sports media landscape that glorifies the individual personality? We’ll find out soon enough.