In his 2010 documentary, Nev Schulman used the term “catfish” to describe a person who uses a false identity to engage in online romances. MTV created a spin-off reality show in November 2012 in which Schulman helps people expose “catfishes,” but the term fully exploded to the mainstream in the wake of the recent Manti Te’o scandal.
On the morning of Jan. 16, Te’o had it all. Te’o, a senior linebacker and captain for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, was the Heisman Trophy runner-up and had just participated in the Bowl Championship Series, not to mention being a definite first-round draft pick in the upcoming 2013 NFL draft. Te’o had accomplished all of this despite the Sept. 12, 2012 deaths of both his grandmother and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua – turning him into a nationwide inspiration.
At 4:10 p.m., the walls fell in on Te’o. The sports website Deadspin posted an article revealing that it was a hoax – not only was Te’o’s girlfriend not dead, she never existed.
Te’o had claimed his “relationship” with Kekua began following a 2009 Notre Dame loss at Stanford. A supposed student at Stanford, Kekua talked to Te’o every night on the phone in order to maintain their long-distance relationship.
Te’o was devastated when he learned that Kekua, the “love of his life,” lost her battle with leukemia only hours after the passing of his grandmother. Keeping his promise to Kekua that he would never miss a game, Te’o did not attend her funeral.
The story was heartbreaking and inspirational for those who watched as Te’o overcame such great emotional turmoil, and Deadspin’s article exposing the hoax sent shockwaves through the sports world. Confusion led many to wonder if Te’o fabricated the entire tragedy for publicity.
As days passed, private investigators dug further into the scandal until they found the man responsible – and that man was not Manti Te’o. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a 22-year-old California native, was the mastermind behind Kekua.
Tuiasosopo and Te’o met via Twitter in 2012, beginning an emotional relationship where Tuiasosopo tricked Te’o into believing he was Kekua. Te’o, unsure of what his family and friends would think of his relationship with a woman he had never met, has thus far only been found guilty of lying to the public about how he had met Kekua and trying to cover up the scandal after he learned he had been betrayed. There are still many holes in Te’o’s story, but Tuiasosopo supported Te’o’s claim to innocence when he admitted in a televised interview with Dr. Phil that Te’o was not involved in the lie.
In the same interview, Tuiasosopo revealed that he had fooled Te’o by speaking in a higher-pitched voice during their phone conversations and sending photos that were taken from a former classmate’s Facebook page. When asked if his romantic attachment to Te’o made him gay, Tuiasosopo responded by saying he was “confused.”
Tuiasosopo’s interview with Dr. Phil revealed a troubled mind with an equally troubled past. Te’o said that he wishes no ill will toward Tuiasosopo and hopes that Tuiasosopo gets the help he needs.
Sports and scandal have become synonymous with one another. While some scandals merely blemish an athlete’s career, others are entirely destructive. The repercussions for Te’o as he moves forward with his football career have yet to be revealed. Te’o has already become a nationwide punch line, but more importantly, the bad publicity may have significantly lowered his stock for the NFL draft. Regardless of what the future holds, the Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax will forever be one of the more confusing and unusual moments in sports history.