Catfishing Manti Te’o

On ESPN, while you’re watching, say, Sportscenter, they’ve got this scroll running along the bottom of the screen, keeping you up with sports news.  Few days ago, I see this news item: “Manti Te’o girlfriend does not exist.”  Say what?  My first reaction was to chuckle–looks like ESPN has a glitch in their scroll.

What a strange story.  For those of you who may have missed it, Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame middle linebacker, and the runner up for college football’s Heisman Trophy, carried on a long relationship, conducted entirely via the internet and phone calls, with a tragically dying young woman named Lennay Kekua. Who, turns out, did not exist.  Te’o was pranked.  Hoaxed.  Bamboozled.  Victimized.

It had been a big story, in Sports Illustrated and in many many other news outlets.  Te’o’s girlfriend was in an auto accident, then learned she had leukemia.  She and Manti talked nightly, texted; she was his inspiration. They shared religious beliefs. They prayed together. The same day that his grandmother died, so did Kekua.  He was devastated; he dedicated the season to her.

And it turns out the whole thing was an invention, a false narrative.  The scammer was a guy named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. He also impersonated Lennay Kekua on the phone.  We all heard his voice; Katie Couric played voice mail conversation excerpts in her interview with Te’o.  Sure sounded like a woman to me.

Deadspin broke the story, not without trepidation.  The single best interview I saw about it was on The Cycle, with Deadspin managing editor Tom Scocca.  The four Cycle reporters (one of them named, I’m not kidding, Krystal Ball) were all snarky about it; clearly saw the story as really hi-larious.  Tom Scocca did not.  He saw the story as tragic, sad on several levels. Said he didn’t particularly want to run it. Sad for Te’o, sad for the state of mainstream journalism.  Because the tragic/inspiring Lennay Kekua story had been such a big story, Scocca and his reporters went over every detail of the main media stories (especially the one in Sports Illustrated), to see what specific facts their story would need to rebut.  He said he was shocked to learn that there weren’t any.  SI had done this entire cover story about Te’o/Kekua without a single piece of supporting fact or evidence.

The story frankly is pretty hard to believe.  Could Te’o really be that naive?  Tuiasosopo/Kekua apparently called him in December–she wasn’t dead after all.  She had faked her death, and was on the run from a drug cartel.  Te’o kept on believing.  He began embellishing the tale, including frankly impossible details, describing seeing her at a Notre Dame/Stanford football game, for example.  Even after he learned of the scam, he kept the Kekua story alive, out of embarrassment and because he didn’t want to disappoint his Dad.

This kind of thing, impersonating a non-existent romantic partner, is called Catfishing, apparently.  Comes from a documentary film: Catfish, which became a reality TV series.  I’ve never watched either.  It’s not a new thing: in the ’80s, a woman named Miranda developed phone relationships with Billy Joel, Warren Beatty and Robert DeNiro, among others.  She told ’em she was a model, independently wealthy–they believed her, and would talk to her on the phone for hours. They thought they had something going with her–Beatty said it really hurt when she stopped returning his calls. Miranda turned out to be a social worker from Baton Rouge.

But what’s particularly interesting to me is the Mormon angle.  Te’o is famously LDS.  Very prominently LDS.  So when the story broke, and people incredulously asked ‘could he have really been this naive, this gullible,’ my thought was, ‘of course he’s naive.  He’s LDS.’

On the TV show Frazier, they had a recurring bit when we met Frazier Crane’s new agent, this incredibly naive innocent; first time we meet him, he’s wearing a Boy Scout uniform.  It got a nice costume laugh.  He was also described as Mormon. But that public image–Mormons as impossibly guileless.  And it has some foundation.

Which is why Mormons are so susceptible to cons.  We’ve seen it in our family.  Thirty years ago, family members were caught up in a huge scam.  Their bishop introduced them to it as ‘an opportunity for righteous LDS people to pay some extra tithing.’  He wasn’t in on it; he was also a victim, as hornswoggled as they were.  The whole time the Te’o story was breaking, my daughter was job hunting–she got this wonderful job, good paying, easy work, working as a PA for a real estate agent named ‘Mike Jones.’  Seemed too good to be true.  Which, turns out, it was–she figured out it was a scam before she could get burned.  We live in Utah; flimflam capital of the USA.

We like to think of ourselves as goodhearted people, disinclined to think the worst of other people, inclined to kindness.  But the dark side of Mormon culture is this: we tend to believe in a narrative in which righteous people (us) are rewarded for their goodness.  When something seems too good to be true, we tend to think maybe we deserve it.  God’s rewarding us with an opportunity to maybe pay a little extra tithing. That particular notion–a chosen people, blessed with material prosperity as a direct result of righteousness–is deeply ingrained in our culture. But it’s as theologically questionable as it is impractical.  Sometimes a little cynicism isn’t such a bad idea.

In Te’o’s case there wasn’t any money involved.  Lennay Kekua didn’t ask for his banking information–she may have hinted at it once, apparently, but Te’o never gave her money.  No, what ‘she’ wanted was Manti Te’o’s trusting, loving heart.  And that places the cruelty of Tuiasosopo’s prank quite beyond comprehension.

Ronaiah Tuiasosopo is clearly a bright guy, a talented guy.  He’s apparently a good singer, and obviously he’s a pretty gifted actor.  He impersonated a dying young woman so convincingly that a good man fell in love with ‘her.’  I suspect he’s also a sociopath, indifferent to the suffering he causes.  He’s played Lennay Kekua for years–Manti Te’o is only his first famous victim. I wish there were some way for him to do prison time, but he probably didn’t do anything illegal.  I do hope that Brother Te’o is able to put this behind him. And next time he falls in love, let’s hope it’s for real.  With someone who exists.

One thought on “Catfishing Manti Te’o

  1. N Wilson

    SLC has its own branch office of the FBI, devoted to fraud – a distinction not afforded to many larger cities. Objective evidence that what you say – we Mormons are culturally gullible – is certainly true.


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