(January 21, 2013) NCAA football Heisman finalist Manti Te’o knows what it is like to be romantically deceived online. The star football player, projected to be a first round pick in the NFL this year, claims that in 2009, he fell for a woman online named Lennay Kekua, who years later turned out to be… well… a guy.
The story has made national headlines because Te’o was the star linebacker for Notre Dame, which made it to the BCS Championship game this year and he claimed that on September 11, 2012, his girlfriend had passed away on the same day as his grandmother. The media widely reported the story and it served as an inspiration for the only undefeated team in NCAA football in 2012… the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
It wasn’t until January, 2013, that scrutiny started on the story given by Manti Te’o of his girlfriend and grandmother dying on the same day. Acting on a tip, the online blog Deadspin, did some digging and discovered that while Manti Te’o's grandmother did die, the supposed girlfriend he had did not die.
Because she never existed.
How could that be? Did Te’o make her up? Did someone else? And what does it have to do with online dating?
In November, 2012, well before this story took its bizarre turn, Manti Te’o sat down with Chicago news anchor Kate Sullivan where he talked about his grandmother and “girlfriend” and how the death of the two of them, particularly his girlfriend, caused an entire community to come together in support of him. In retrospect, the interview is a bit unsettling. Here it is:
Manti Te’o Interview with Kate Sullivan
How Catfishing Netted Manti Te’o
Catfishing is when someone creates a fake persona online for the sole purpose of deceiving you. In online dating it is a popular form of romance scamming. Catfish and romance scammers make tens of millions of dollars a year off of their victims. The scammers not only have fake online identities, but can go as far as talking on the phone and doing sophisticated fake Web cam chats to make you have no doubt that they are “real”.
The term “Catfishing” comes from a documentary, called Catfish, released two years ago in which a guy “meets” another girl online and eventually falls in love with her. The two communicate online, talk on the phone, and text each other. The only problem is that the woman doesn’t actually exist as the person being portrayed to the guy. In other words, the guy is getting to know the “woman” under a false pretense… she isn’t real.
Here’s the trailer for the documentary:
Catfish Documentary Trailer
So how does this all apply to Manti Te’o? Te’o claims that up until December, he really did believe that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, existed in real life. It was only in early December that Te’o learned, via a tip, that he was the victim of a cruel hoax and that Lennay Kekua never existed. In fact, this girlfriend who he had been deeply in love with, and devoted to, was actually a guy named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.
The reason this became a public spectacle is because Te’o was one of the top defensive players in all of college. He helped his team to an undefeated season and a seat in the coveted BCS championship game. But more important is that in September the media found an emotional “human interest story”, when Te’o thought Lennay had died of Luekemia on the same day as his grandmother. It was publicized everywhere. The problem for Te’o is that he had told people that he had met Lennay Kekua in person because he didn’t want his family to know the truth… that he had met “her” online only.
When the story broke of the hoax, many wondered of Manti’s involvement because he had lied to people about meeting her in person. The first person to land an interview with him was ESPNs Jeremy Schaap. Here’s what he has to say about the very frank and open two and a half hour discussion:
On Thursday, Manti Te’o will be sitting down with Katie Couric to further talk about what happened and how he became a Catfish victim.
Manti’s Story Serves as Warning
Every February is “Online Dating Safety Awareness Month”, an event formed by Online Dating Magazine several years ago to educate singles and online daters about some of the more dubious aspects of online dating. During the month, Online Dating Magazine publishes several safety stories and warnings about incidents like that faced by Manti Te’o. Romance scammers and catfish scammers are good at what they do and as shown by Manti Te’o, they are extremely convincing. Online Dating Magazine warns people against forming perceived relationships online without having ever met the other person. And if that person ever asks for money, even after getting to know you for “months”, then there is a 100% chance that it is a scam. Manti Te’o, unfortunately, learned the hard way, but his story is highlighting an important issue.