January 24, 2013 3:24pm PT by Tim Goodman
Manti Te'o, 'Catfish,' Katie Couric, Oprah and the Sports World: Paging Dr. Phil!
Oh, holy hell, it's impossible to stay out of this Manti Te'o story no matter how hard one tries. Not only will it not die, it just gets weirder by the day and is bringing up all kinds of Kevin Bacon-like degrees of separated madness.
If you've been living under a rock, here's the clearest explanation that can be mustered at this point. Pay attention!
Here goes: Manti Te'o is a very good linebacker who played for Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game and probably will be taken very high in the NFL draft in April. Except that he might not. Because it turns out he either has been or has not been a victim of an online hoax involving a fake girlfriend named Lennay Kekua he met on the Internet and fell in love with, who then, months into the alleged hoax, died. Only she didn't die because she wasn't real, even though the girl in pictures Te'o saw on Facebook and Twitter, Diane O'Meara, is real and eventually appeared on the Today show (to say that her pictures were stolen and she's never met Te'o). And the person who allegedly snared Te'o in this hoax, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo? He once auditioned for The Voice.
Got it so far? No? Let's keep going: Te'o got a lot of credit for playing in an important football game even though he was full of anguish for the fake online girlfriend who died but actually didn't die. The media liked the story. No, they loved the story. Already a star player, Te'o ended up second in voting for the Heisman Trophy, a vote that came a couple of days after he kinda-sorta realized he'd been duped. Notre Dame did not like the story -- for obvious reasons -- but kept quiet about it because, well, who really knows? But it likely has something to do with winning at all costs, embarrassment and institutional lockjaw. ESPN apparently had the story but ended up being scooped by Deadspin, the sports blog that has owned this story.
Everybody wants to own this story because not only do most people not know what "catfishing" is -- falling for someone online who turns out to be nothing at all like you thought and maybe not even the same gender -- but they didn't know there was a movie about it and now an MTV series called Catfish: The TV Show. Ha. Imagine that. There's a show on MTV about something awful and -- whoa, the ratings are really going up on Catfish now. Anyway, that's a slight digression. As the story blew up and Te'o tried his best to cover it up or spin it, he was the butt of jokes on all the late-night talk shows and even spoofed on Saturday Night Live. If that wasn't embarrassing enough, there was sports-world speculation that Te'o actually might drop a round or two in the NFL draft, potentially costing him millions of dollars. (Close your eyes and imagine millions of dollars fluttering through the air and landing in the coffers of MTV as Catfish gets all kinds of new viewers.)
Ah, but the story goes on, as all weird stories with no clear answers are wont to do. Landing an interview with Te'o became, you might have guessed, a big deal. Oprah wanted it, especially because she just had Lance Armstrong on, and even his trail of lies had nothing on this catfishing thing. Dr. Phil wanted it, too. Instead, Te'o and his family gave the interview to Katie Couric, who no doubt texted Oprah immediately with this: "In your face, Lance lover!" (Deadspin suggests that Couric got the interview because she shares the same publicist with Te'o. Before the interview aired on Couric's talk show Thursday, bits of it were shown on Good Morning America. Yep, everybody got a slice of the action in this catfishing hoax.
But Thursday's Couric interview didn't really clear up much of the weirdness. Neither did an earlier print-only interview with ESPN's Jeremy Schaap (though his questioning was far superior to Couric's and gives a better timeline about the player's dedication to this fraudulent girl and the severity of the hoax being played on him). Remember, everything going on in this story is mystifying -- particularly the depth of the deception.
That might be because the whole thing is wildly at odds with how people react in the Internet age. Catfishing is wish fulfillment from lonely people trying to make a connection in a less personal wired world. Before the Internet, people went on blind dates, and when they saw each other, they ran in opposite directions. Now they apparently sleep with the phone until the other person -- who they've never met -- also falls asleep, as Te'o says he did with Lennay. But even in our world of "wow, you sure as hell don't look like your profile photo," there are limits to what is believable and what is just mind-blowingly baffling.
Imagine learning that your girlfriend, who is fake, gets into a car wreck and then is in a coma. (This is what happened -- or, rather, didn't -- to Lennay. And Te'o, because he's on the phone a lot with people who are not who they say they are, even thought he was on the phone with Lennay the moment she came out of her coma. If you're saying, "Wow -- just, wow," then join the club. Now, forget about that and fast forward to this week, when you learn Dick Wolf has a sitcom coming out called Girlfriend in a Coma. How weird is that? It's like the whole world is conspiring to mock you, which it is. I mean, Dick Wolf making a comedy! Bizarro, right, Te'o? And it's based on a song by the Smiths. Dick Wolf = comedy = Smiths. Does it get any weirder than that? I know, I know, it's serious. Oh, it's not based on the Smiths song but shares the same title? Well, that's confusing.
But everything's confusing. So let's move forward. Go down this rabbit hole and you understand why there's a media frenzy, even though the media doesn't quite know what to make of it. Because it goes from funny to cruel very quickly. Lennay, now out of the coma, tells Te'o that she also has leukemia. Holy soap opera, Batman! That's some seriously hard times. Not long after, Te'o, who is extremely religious (and yes, that could easily play into a catfish scheme), finds out his grandmother has died. This actually did happen. It was real. He tells this to Lennay and -- poof -- hours later he finds out (through people posing as her brothers) that Lennay has died. What the what, Robin?! As Schaap duly notes, "This is an act of almost inconceivable cruelty."
Surreal, right? And yes, you're forgiven if you're reading this while setting your DVR to catch Catfish on MTV.
Now, the ultra-confusing part of this story is trying to suss out whether Te'o was part of it. He certainly made things worse by saying in early interviews -- before the freaky parts kicked in -- that he'd met Lennay when he hadn't. Those stories focused on how tragic it was that this star linebacker had lost his grandmother and his girlfriend. Nobody knew at that point the latter was fake. His excuse for lying about meeting Lennay in person was that he didn't want people to "think that I was some crazy dude," he told Schaap. So he lied. And Couric seemed all giddy on Thursday pointing this out to him. But Te'o said, what would you have done? Good point. The deception was astonishingly deep at that point.
But lying about the fact he'd never met this person clearly implies that Te'o knew it looked pretty bad on paper -- actually, everywhere. Oh, it gets weirder. So, so much weirder. (The Schaap story and Deadspin are the best sources for blowing your mind about this and setting up one of the most confusing timelines since Lost). But then there's the matter of Couric and her big get. She asked Te'o if maybe this elaborate hoax was really just a way to cover up his sexual preferences. Couric: "Are you gay?" Te'o: "No, far from it."
As you might have sussed out by now, extremely religious families might make it difficult for a young man to admit something like that. Oh, and the NFL is not exactly a welcome home for gays. But it would have been better if Te'o said, "That's none of your business, Katie." But, of course, he couldn't. And for the most part, Couric did what a lot of people wanted her to do: play the cynicism card and see if he'll admit to being a part of the hoax. He didn't.
We also found out Thursday through Tuiasosopo's lawyer that his client was, in fact, Lennay. He wasn't just masterminding the whole thing as some cruel joke (which it was, though no one has yet found out why Tuiasosopo would do that and what he hoped to gain from it, since there had been no outright plea for money). That latest development just ups the odd factor. Here's a guy who tried out for The Voice and had some theatrics to him -- but could he convincingly pretend to be a girl? Not just once, but for a long, long time? And, as the crazy story implies, maybe two different girls? Te'o gave Couric some of the voicemails that Lennay -- or rather "Lennay" -- left him. "Doesn't that sound like a girl?" he asked.
It does. But now that we know it's not, part of it also doesn't sound like a girl. There's just not enough of Lennay talking to take a good guess.
If you're wondering if this is where the story is going to break into a billion pieces, you might be right. We don't know Tuiasosopo's motivation. We don't know definitively if Te'o was a part of it. And even if Couric dared ask the "Are you gay?" question, we don't yet know if that's pertinent or not -- only that it felt all kinds of wrong having to see this young man try to explain something unaccountably embarrassing.
All we know is that Catfish is going to jump from pretty good ratings to really good ratings soon enough. And probably that Couric is going to cash in on her own ratings for Katie. And Dr. Phil, who lost out on this interview, just got renewed through 2017, so chances are he'll get Te'o or Tuiasosopo at some point. Unless Oprah gets him first. And let's not rule out Ellen. Because this story ain't over. It's still just as fishy as ever.