To hear Manti Te'o tell it, he's a victim of one of the greatest web hoaxes in the internet's relatively short lifespan. Te'o, the Notre Dame football star presently embroiled in a fake-dead-girlfriend scandal thanks to Deadspin, says that he was deceived for years by internet pranksters who led him to believe he was dating a woman named Lennay Kekua—a woman who, it turns out, never even existed. Te'o says those same pranksters eventually convinced him Kekua was in a serious car accident and then stricken with leukemia, only to die from leukemia in September of last year on the same day his grandmother died. In a word, it's fantastical. So fantastical, in fact, that a lot of people are having a hard time believing Te'o himself wasn't in on the scam at least partially. Though a lot of questions remain, one thing that's certain is that if Te'o is lying, he will have violated at least some of the regulations in Notre Dame's famously sacrosanct "du Lac" student code of conduct, which is when things get even more complicated.
Though we still don't know all the twists and turns of this truly Byzantine tale—and may never—we do know that Te'o claimed in a statement released on Wednesday that he developed feelings for Kekua "by communicating frequently online and on the phone" with her. If that were always the story, people might be a bit less skeptical of Te'o's innocence. But a wave of inconsistencies are quickly eroding the linebacker's credibility.
Firstly, there are conflicting reports about whether Te'o communicated with Kekua primarily—or solely—via phone and internet or whether he actually interacted with Kekua in person on numerous occasions. For instance, according to an article from the South Bend Tribune, the story goes that Te'o met and exchanged numbers with Kekua, a student at Stanford, after a football game in Palo Alto. Teo's father, Brian, went on to tell the Tribune that Te'o and Kekua were "just friends." "Every once in a while," he added, "she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there."
So which is it? Was Te'o a guy who got suckered by a sham internet girlfriend, or did he meet a girl at Stanford—Stanford has no record of any Lennay Kekua, by the way—who would then occasionally fly to Hawaii to spend time with him and his family? In retrospect, the shadiness of all of this was presaged by a now infamously vague quote Te'o gave to Sports Illustrated writer Pete Thamel, who interviewed Te'o last year and just published the full transcript from that interaction on Thursday:
SI: How did you meet her?
TE'O: We met just, ummmm, just she knew my cousin. And kind of saw me there so. Just kind of regular.
"Just kind of regular."
What also doesn't add up is Te'o's assertion that he knew Kekua's life and death were hoaxes on December 6, and then waited until the day after Christmas to tell Notre Dame officials what happened. Here's how Jack Swarbick, Notre Dame's athletic director, explained the story to a press conference on Wednesday evening, according to Deadspin:
Te'o told him that when he was at the ESPN awards, which aired Dec. 6, he took a phone call from a woman whose phone number matched Lennay Kekua's. "When he answered it," Swarbrick said, "it was a person whose voice sounded like the same voice he had talked to, who told him that she was, in fact, not dead."
Even if that is true, and Te'o was innocent until the night of the ESPN awards, he nevertheless continued to speak about "his girlfriend," Kekua, at least twice following December 6, including once on December 9 to allege that Kekua "made him promise" to stay and play an important game instead of coming to see her in her last moments in the hospital.
Once again, which is it? Did Te'o really find out the whole thing was a lie that night in December, or did he simply tell Notre Dame authorities that later? If he did find out what was going on December 6, why did he abet his victimizers by continuing to lie about Kekua days after he learned the truth?
In the hours since Deadspin's initial Te'o story first broke, so have stories saying that Te'o's teammates, the people he spent most of his time with at Notre Dame, suspected something was amiss with the vaunted linebacker all along. Sports reporter Jackie Pepper interviewed an anonymous Notre Dame player who said that other players had questioned Kekua's authenticity for months, though they never brought it up to Te'o.
The debate among teammates wasn't whether or not Manti actually knew this girl—it was clear that they had been in contact; no, players just didn't think that it was fair to call Lennay Kekua Manti's girlfriend, period (it is well-known on campus that he has had relations with other girls during his time at Notre Dame). They recognized what was going on for what it was—a terrible publicity stunt used to fuel Manti Te'o's Heisman campaign. In fact, many of the players privately commented that they didn't want the students to wear leis in support of Manti and wouldn't participate themselves—they cited that the team never responded so publicly to tragic events for other players. But there was also the feeling that Manti didn't deserve to benefit from publicity from the death of somebody he barely knew.
Regardless of exactly how and in what order things went down, it would appear that at least somewhere along the line Manti Te'o—and possibly his family—was complicit in the mendacity that surrounds this mess. Knowing that, an obvious question to anyone familiar with the eminently pious Notre Dame's code of student conduct, du Lac, is what Te'o's punishment should be for violating that code.
The du Lac guidebook, which is separate from the academic honor code and regulates students' personal behavior, is introduced with a passage that notes that, being a Catholic university, Notre Dame "seeks to nurture in its students a love of knowledge and a keenly developed moral sense." As such, there are sections in du Lac about drug possession, alcohol use, and sexual activity ("students who engage in sexual union outside of marriage may be subject to University sanction"). There is also a section called "General Standards of Conduct," which are the guidelines most applicable to Te'o's case. In that section, rule number seven clearly states that any "dishonesty, forgery or taking advantage of another" will be considered "clearly inconsistent with the University's expectations for membership." Five spots down, rule 12 says that Notre Dame bans "[a]ctions which seemingly affect only the individual(s) involved but which may have a negative or disruptive impact on the University community and/or concern a student's personal and academic growth."
Again, thus far it is very difficult to piece together whether Te'o was mostly just an innocent god-fearing man taken advantage of by some malicious trolls or if he had a hand in creating and then cultivating the Lennay Kekua story from the very beginning. But what is clear based on Te'o's own testimony is that he at least continued to lie about Kekua days after he says he knew she never even existed. Beyond that, as this story develops, it seems as if there are far too many holes in Te'o and his family's narrative of how they grew to know Kekua to make sense, which would mean that, indeed, Te'o had a big hand in an action that had a "negative or disruptive" impact on Notre Dame. Almost anyone can see that. Anyone but Notre Dame officials, that is.
I called Notre Dame and asked if Te'o would be disciplined if it does indeed come out that he was telling one of the grandest lies in university history. Spokesman Dennis Brown said that Notre Dame did "a full investigation" into the matter and discovered that Te'o did nothing wrong. When I asked him about Te'o continuing the Kekua narrative days after the fateful night of December 6, Brown told me that these are questions Te'o would have to answer himself one day. "So there is no plan to punish Te'o?" I asked. Brown responded: "Any time we're made aware of a student acting contrary to the rules put forth, we look at it very closely and act upon it appropriately."
Erin Gloria Ryan, a former writer for Jezebel and a member of Notre Dame's class of 2005, said this is all par for the course. She told me in an email that because Te'o is an important figure on campus and has probably completed all his academic requirements—which she notes are difficult even for prestigious athletes—the university is probably content to let him walk on with nary a slap in the wrist. "As long as the University is sticking with their story (OUR STORY AND HIS STORY MATCH THEY ARE THE SAME!) there is no violation," she wrote. "But if [Notre Dame] and Te'o weren't in lockstep, there would definitely be an issue." In other words, it's good to be a star football player, as usual.