The Internet hoax of the century: Why Manti Te'o won't come out about the truth

January 18, 2013

When I look at Manti Te’o, I’m not sure what to make of him. This year, Te’o dominated the college football media because of his larger than life story—a young, determined athlete who had overcome monumental personal tragedy, including the death of his grandmother and his girlfriend’s slow passing from leukemia, to lead his #1 team to a BCS Championship game. His story was like something out of an episode of Friday Night Lights or Rudy. For a college football program seeking redemption after years of underperforming, Te’o wasn’t just their star. He was their symbol.

But this Wednesday, Deadspin revealed that Manti Te’o’s “tragic dead girlfriend” story was a hoax. For newcomers to the story, the plot is incredibly labyrinthine—even Christopher Nolan might need footnotes. Luckily for Chris and the rest of America, Deadspin sums up the number of fabrications involved in this controversy. Here’s what we know at this point:

There was no Lennay Kekua. Lennay Kekua did not meet Manti Te'o after the Stanford game in 2009. Lennay Kekua did not attend Stanford. Lennay Kekua never visited Manti Te'o in Hawaii. Lennay Kekua was not in a car accident. Lennay Kekua did not talk to Manti Te'o every night on the telephone. She was not diagnosed with cancer, did not spend time in the hospital, did not engage in a lengthy battle with leukemia. She never had a bone marrow transplant. She was not released from the hospital on Sept. 10, nor did Brian Te'o congratulate her for this over the telephone. She did not insist that Manti Te'o play in the Michigan State or Michigan games, and did not request he send white flowers to her funeral. Her favorite color was not white. Her brother, Koa, did not inform Manti Te'o that she was dead. Koa did not exist. Her funeral did not take place in Carson, Calif., and her casket was not closed at 9 a.m. exactly. She was not laid to rest.

Lennay Kekua's last words to Manti Te'o were not ‘I love you.’”

Because the media loves nothing if not a great mystery, there are currently three popular narratives floating around to make sense of this data and this scandal. The first is the one that Manti Te’o is serving up himself: He was being Catfish-ed—or lied to on the internet by someone who wasn’t who they claimed to be. The second theory is that Te’o used his sad dead girlfriend to help him win a Heisman trophy, a theory that may or may not also implicate Notre Dame in helping Te’o keep up appearances. Currently, Notre Dame has stood behind Te’o, validating his claims that he was duped. The last theory is that Te’o was gay and used his fake online girlfriend to hide a relationship with Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the man allegedly behind keeping Lennay Kekua alive.

As the media is quickly discovering, only one of these theories makes sense—despite being currently labeled as a “rumor.” If Theory #1 is true, Te’o is incredibly naïve and gullible, allowing himself to be deceived via an internet con that even Danny Ocean would describe as laughably elaborate. However, Te’o was friends with Tuiasosopo separately and claimed that he met Lennay Kekua, which would be difficult if Kekua were a figment of the internet’s imagination. He could have met a girl pretending to be Kekua, but Deadspin contacted the girl from the pictures—who asked to be called “Reba” to protect her identity—and she assured she was not in on the hoax. Tuiasosopo asked to take pictures of her that he then used for Leenay’s Twitter profile. Theory #2 is then more likely, although this version makes Te’o absurdly sociopathic. But if Theory #2 is the case, why would Te’o need her to get in a car accident and die of leukemia to get great press out of it? Maybe I haven’t had enough fake leukemia-stricken internet girlfriends, but to me, that's just overkill.

Or: Theory #3. He’s gay. Queerty gives us a great introduction to this version of the Te’o Myth:

“Adding more confusion to the mix is Te’o's friend Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who allegedly created Kekua’s Twitter account back in 2008, and used it to meet unsuspecting men. Te’o wasn’t the first person to have an online “relationship” with her. One mark—who had been “introduced” to Lennay by Tuiasosopo—lasted about a month before family members grew suspicious that Lennay could never be found on the telephone, and that wherever one expected Lennay to be, Ronaiah was there instead.

It wouldn’t be the first time a gay man had created a fake profile to attract straight guys. But why did Te’o go along? Why did he build on the ruse? Just last November Tuiasosopo and his family were on-field guests of Teo’s when Notre Dame played USC. And Tuiasosopo was in a car accident about a month before Te’o told the press Kekua had one.”

Although Deadspin interviews sources close to Tuiasosopo, who claim they are 80% sure Ronaiah was Lennay Kekua and Te’o was in on it, none of them bring up the Gay Theory—which is presumably then worse than making up a dead girlfriend for publicity. You can lie to the media in numerous interviews, leverage your web of deceit into landing the cover of Sports Illustrated and be almost rewarded for being the Richard Nixon of College Football with a shiny Heisman, as long as you aren’t all homosexual about it.

When I explained this to my father, who was flabbergasted by the onslaught on information coming out about Te’o’s falsehoods, he said that he couldn’t imagine why any person would go to so much trouble to hide something. He was under the impression it was easier to make history than to stay in the closet. I then told my father that if Te’o is gay, I can’t blame him for not being open about it. As a Mormon football star going to Notre Dame, he’s playing the nation’s most conservative sport in one of our most conservative schools while practicing our most conservative religion. If Te’o is a friend of Dorothy, he doesn’t have to break through one barrier—by becoming the first openly gay football player. He has to break through three. His co-conspirator, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, comes from a devout football clan, and his family members have played for Colorado, USC and the L.A Rams. When Tuiasosopo quit football, he became a gospel singer in his father’s church.

If these men were indeed gay and wanted to be together, the mountain they would have to climb couldn’t possibly be higher, and their decision would come with extraordinary personal and professional cost. These are the kinds of variables that lead professional athletes like John Amaechi, Wade Davis and Billy Bean lead double lives in sports dominated by intolerance and homophobia. (Remember John Rocker?) In 1996, sports columnist Skip Bayless mentioned that Troy Aikman might be gay—an assertion that Bayless still stands by. (The claim was backed up by years of anecdotal evidence about Aikman’s personal life.) Aikman was so put off by the thought of someone even suggesting the possibility that he might be gay that he’s still mad about it—almost two decades later. During a radio interview in 2011, Aikman stated that he hasn’t seen Bayless since his statements went public, and things might “get physical” if it did.

Clearly being gay in the NFL isn’t something to be taken lightly.

I’ve never met Manti Te’o. I don’t know him or anything about his personal life, but I feel like I understand him. I’ve been him. Almost every queer person I know has been him at some point—inventing an internet girlfriend who lives in Canada, going to prom with your opposite gender best friend, asking the girl from your drama program to go steady with you—because if you have to live a lie, at least she looks like she might be fun to live it with. We know what it’s like to date girls and be secretly "hoping to meet their brothers." We know what it's like to keep your eyes open in your Southern Baptist church while everyone’s silently praying to a God they think hates you. We know what it's like to dance to Britney Spears when you think no one’s watching. We understand what it is to be something else because someone wants you to be—whether that’s your family, your football team or the media.

Look at Jodie Foster. It’s hard to come out and have people make an issue of your sexuality—when all you want to do is the thing you love. You just came to play, not to be a poster child for something.

If Manti Te’o is gay as many allege, then we need to have as much empathy for him as we did when he pretended to have a dead internet girlfriend—even if our empathy looks like an endorsement of deception. When Te’o was saintly and straight, the media applauded him for being courageous and playing through the emotional pain, but that struggle would be nothing compared to the one that faces him now. No offense intended to his fake dead girlfriend, but if he’s gay, he doesn’t just stand to lose his loved one. Manti Te’o could lose everything. Te’o could lose the support of family and friends. He could lose numerous endorsement deals, as sports companies who rely on a heteronormative public image might not want to see that associated with a gay football star. He could lose job offers in his future career, as NFL teams predicated on replicating success and sticking to a formula are unlikely to take a risk on making history. They care about winning championships.

When I look at Manti Te’o, I see someone who already is a champion. I see someone who has played with strength and courage on the football field, who was able to be a leader when his team needed him and who helped Notre Dame do what many thought was impossible. I can only hope that real life is anything like football.

Nico Lang blogs about LGBTQ life in Chicago for WBEZ.org. Follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or on Facebook.