GOSHEN, Ind. —
Here on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, not even the constant gaze of Touchdown Jesus could have seen this one coming.
In one of the more bizarre sports stories ever it was reported by Deadspin.com, a sports website, that the alleged girlfriend of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o never existed. Her supposed death, one of the main storylines of the Fighting Irish season and Te'o's eventual emergence as a Heisman Trophy finalist, never happened.
Te'o himself confirmed that report claiming he was the victim of a hoax.
Lennay Kekua, a 21-year-old Stanford student who he was told died Sept. 11 from leukemia, never existed. The Deadspin report went on to quote an unnamed friend of a source that they were "80 percent" certain that Te'o was complicit in hoax, alluding he used the story for self-promotion in his bid for the Heisman Trophy.
Te'o has yet to speak publicly about the matter other than releasing a statement to ESPN declaring he was the victim of hoax, not the perpetrator. Notre Dame officials are standing behind Te'o.
The news of Te'o's golden blunder could not be escaped. It dominated sports talk television, radio and websites.
Obviously this story is in mid-stream, but regardless of how it turns out for Te'o, this is no doubt a refresher course in the principles of quality journalism.
Other than the Deadspin reporters who connected the complex Twitter-sphere dots with the embellished accounts of the relationship in the media, we all whiffed on this one.
Respected ESPN reporter Gene Wojciechowski was one of the first to broadcast the story of Te'o's girlfriend nationally. Te'o told Wojciechowski that Kekua was the most beautiful person he's ever met because of her character. There's a vagueness in Te'o's comments that in retrospect all journalists wish they would have pounced on.
Wojciechowski even admitted as much, saying in radio interviews that he looked for information about Kekua's death in popular databases, but came up empty. When he asked Te'o if he could speak with Kekua's family, he said he was told that the family wanted to maintain its privacy. He respected that.
It was a story simply to good not to tell, despite the journalistic hang-up of verification. After all, Wojeciechowski -- who is a 30-year sports journalism veteran who has also worked for The Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News and Chicago Tribune -- got the story straight from Te'o's mouth. Why would he lie?
Then there is Te'o's father, Brian, who told Eric Hansen of The South Bend Tribune that Manti and Kekua met after a 2009 football game in Stanford and that Kekua would come to Hawaii to visit Manti and the Te'o family during the summer. That account, apparently isn't true either since Manti Te'o admitted Wednesday that he never met Kekua face to face. Their relationship, he said, existed entirely online and over the phone.
Obviously that story was published and the myth continued to snowball into the avalanche it is today.
That said, I'm not here to throw stones. All journalists live in glass houses and we are constantly reminded of our our own valid flaws each time the paper comes out. I have yet to put out the perfect paper.
My newspaper, The Goshen News, in fact, wasn't spared in this dumpster fire of a story either. We fell for Manti's story, whether he believed it to be true or not. I mentioned it in a column about Te'o's impact on Notre Dame's resurgence prior to the BCS National Championship game earlier this month.
Te'o talked about his relationship with Kekua during his media availability in early October. The following quotes appeared in News Sports Editor David Vantress's report on Oct. 5.
“Something my girlfriend always stressed to me," Te'o said, "was always being humble and if anything, I think this experience has truly humbled me and strengthened my relationship with my Heavenly Father."
We're all having a moment now, one we have yet to figure out. It's creepy watching video clip after video clip of Te'o talking about Kekua, a ghost who now appears to be a complete fabrication.
Te'o's silence isn't helping. He's gone from being a decorated college football player to the most ridiculed. Despite his and Notre Dame's assertions that Te'o is the victim of this hoax, there are still plenty of doubts.
In the meantime, all journalists, including myself, should use this as a textbook lesson that the ethics of quality journalism should always be in force, regardless of the story someone may want to tell and we think someone may want to read.
Michael Wanbaugh is the managing editor of The Goshen (Ind.) News. He began covering Notre Dame football in 1996.