The national shock that came with the revelation that star Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o’s girlfriend, Lenny Kekua, was a hoax quickly turned to skepticism and then, for some, a deep sense of sympathy.
Te’o has denied any involvement in creating his fictional girlfriend, a story his critics say would have increased his chances at winning the Heisman Trophy. Others -- most notably “Saturday Night Live” -- poked fun at the perception Te’o took the limits of gullibility to a new level.
Then came the news that Te’o did in fact spend hours on the phone with someone who claimed to be his girlfriend, not a small realization when considering how often people are duped online.
Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the man behind the hoax, spent countless nights on the phone with Te’o, pretending to be Lennay with the help of a falsetto voice and an acting background. Tuiasosopo’s lawyer, Milton Grimes, told the New York Daily News Te’o “thought it was a female he was talking with. ... It was Ronaiah as Lennay.”
Tuiasosopo had taken voice lessons earlier in his life and had even tried out for the reality show “The Voice.” Deadspin, the outlet that originally broke the story, proved Tuiasosopo’s skill at deception by posting the voice mails he had left on Te’o’s phone while posing as Lennay.
The discovery that a supposedly unknowing Te’o had spent all that time baring intimate details about himself to another man then led to the speculation that he was gay. Katie Couric asked as much during an interview with Te’o that aired Thursday, a question the Mormon football player responded with, “No. Far from it. Far from it.”
Te’o admitted he made a series of small lies to his family to cover the embarrassment that would’ve stemmed from never actually meeting his girlfriend. It was confession that had critics wondering if he had made up Kekua’s supposed death from leukemia on Sept. 12.
“Katie, put yourself in my situation,” he told Couric. “My whole world told me that she died on Sept. 12. Everybody knew that. This girl, who I committed myself to, died on Sept. 12. Now I get a phone call on Dec. 6, saying that she’s alive and then I’m going to be put on national TV two days later. And to ask me about the same question. You know, what would you do?”
One person who answered that question was Jonathan Williams, who penned a column for Salon comparing his own relationship hoax to the one that’s been in the headlines. Williams wrote that years ago he was depressed and confused about his own life, leading to a vulnerability that was exploited by someone he met online. The new friend claimed to be a single woman who also happened to be a writer, a lie that led to a year-long virtual relationship that all came crashing down when Williams sought more information.
“Every lie she gave was reasonable. Every lie was believable. And I never dug too deep, because she never gave me any reason to. I have spent more time researching $20 software than I did researching a woman I spent a year on,” Williams wrote, adding that an Internet connection and willingness to believe anything can have major consequences, especially for someone with as much recognition as Te’o.
“But I also would urge you not to judge Manti Te’o or his family too harshly. When I look at him, I don’t see a liar who tried to gain fame to increase his odds of winning the Heisman. I see a victim whose shame probably runs very deep right now. It is humiliating to fall for an online hoax, and you will spin a web of lies to protect your reputation and pride.
“I was isolated when I fell into my trap. Imagine Te’o’s isolation. He’s far from home. He’s Mormon at a Catholic school. He is a star athlete with no time to socialize and no friends beyond his teammates. A beautiful girl from his home who shares his faith contacts him. He falls into the trap,” he continued.
“I’m not saying it happened. I’m saying is if it did happen, I understand.”