LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- How many innocent fake people have to die before anyone takes things like this seriously?Lennay Kekua never existed. She never was the girlfriend of Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman runner-up Manti Te'o. She never was stricken with leukemia, did not support Te'o emotionally through his football career, was not the stuff of compelling copy and tearjerking TV. Te'o cried in front of reporters when talking about her death of cancer.
Don't worry. She didn't suffer. There was an illness, all right, but it was not hers. Today, Deadspin.com dropped this bomb: She was a work of fiction.
That much we know. We are not quite sure, to any real extent, of her authors. But they, if we are honest, do not matter. We don't know whether Manti Te'o, as claimed by Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, is the victim of a disturbing hoax or a conspirator in one. Even those matters are side issues, curiosities against a larger backdrop. They will be sorted out. Already, the masses combing through Twitter are finding bits and pieces of hints at this from a month ago and more. This hoax, and its reporting, are going to untangle, and it's going to be messy.
Regardless, people do stupid, cruel stuff like that all the time. Watch "Catfish," the MTV documentary series about online relationships. I'm not saying it's right. I'm not letting them off. But there are bigger catfish to fry.
What makes this different, and what is more important about this story, is that the national sports media picked up this falsehood and ran with it. National outlets may not have given birth to the fictional Miss Kekua, but they helped bring her to life. They gave her emotion and real-life struggles. They painted her with dramatic colors, bathed Te'o's tearful story in soft music and literal sunlight. (The Chicago Sun-Times: "The sunlight touched Lennay Kekua's face for the last time at noon eastern time two Saturdays ago." Sports Illustrated: "Her relatives told [Te'o] that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice.")
I don't know who created Lennay Kekua, but the media put flesh on her fictitious bones.
The media always have been suckers for a good story. In this one, we were just suckers. Whether this football player was perpetuating a lie for whatever reason (and there are elements that look damning, like telling a Notre Dame interviewer he'd just received a letter from his girlfriend before this season's Stanford game, 31 days after she supposedly died), or whether that player was duped, it's all the same.
These media outlets with major resources and experienced reporters should not have been duped.
"Were we lied to?" ESPN's Steve Levy asked on the network's SportsCenter program Wednesday night, after listening to an emotional interview Te'o gave on camera, discussing the girl who never was with ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski. It was an uncomfortable discussion. It should be. "Were we lied to?" So what if you were?
Deadspin unraveled this troubling story, largely using a two-man team, one of whom is an undergrad. Not any mainstream source, network, newspaper or wire service. This was new media trumping old, rolling a strike that, in the sports world, at least, knocked down everybody of national consequence.
The boldest lies are the most difficult to detect. We all print or broadcast statements from public sources that we doubt. We quote politicians or coaches even as we shake our heads. But there is a service in that, of getting prominent leaders "on the record." What they say is important, if only to hold back up to them later.
This story was different. And if no one checked to talk to the family of this fictitious woman, or had red flags go off when no one could produce pictures of her, it's because they did not want the story to be untrue -- not only because it made for compelling storytelling, but because in some sense, for this inspiring narrative to be untrue would mean such disturbing things about this popular player, and this storied program, and more.
Several years back I wrote a story about a thoroughbred trainer who had overcome heart transplant surgery to train a Kentucky Derby horse. Her own words were inspiring and thoughtful. Her family and colleagues spoke glowingly about her. It was a moving story. And it wasn't going into the newspapers, my editors insisted, unless I talked with the doctors who performed the surgery.
The Internet has changed everyone. The rush to publish is more intense. The desire to drive "page views" can cloud judgment.
Just this week in this city, a former councilwoman's daughter informed the media that her mother had died. Immediately, outlets published the news. But there was one problem. She was not dead. She was being kept alive on a ventilator until the family could gather. She didn't die until 12 hours after some of the original reports. Few, if any, outlets corrected their error, or addressed the reporting at all. It was easier to pretend they had been correct. They had attribution.
No one is ready for bold, premeditated, creative falsehood. Stories slip through the cracks, even with reporters with good records for accuracy. Mistakes are made.
But the fabricated life of Lennay Kekua slipped through every crack at the sports media's highest level.
The story here isn't that a band of losers tried to punk a football player in a fake online relationship, or even if a college football player pulled one over on the media. The story is that the media -- long trained to have a heightened detector for bull-you-know what -- either lost its sense of smell, or was too eager to make the whole thing smell like roses.
It's troubling. And if you're anything like me, you're likely to hold your fake loved ones just a little bit tighter tonight.