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Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said football star Manti Te’o has been the victim of an online hoax similar to that perpetrated in the 2010 film Catfish and the MTV series of the same name.
Te’o’s relationship with a 22-year-old woman, who died of cancer last year, was revealed Wednesday to be a hoax. First reported by Deadspin, it was unclear if the celebrated linebacker was a participant in the hoax, which played out in the pages of Sports Illustrated and on national news broadcasts. Swarbrick insisted the football player was an unwitting victim of a cruel hoax.
“I would refer all of you to the documentary called Catfish and the MTV show that is a derivative of that documentary,” Swarbrick said during a press conference Wednesday.
Catfish, from directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, centers on a young man who is tricked into falling for a fictitious young woman on Facebook.
Swarbrick described Te’o relationship as a textbook Catfish, “a scam” involving a new relationship online, a subsequent trauma (such as a car accident) and then a death. He said Te’o became ensnared in an ever-enlarging drama that involved a growing cast of characters, including friends and family members of the girlfriend.
“The pain was real. The grief was real. The affection was real. That’s the nature of this sad, cruel game,” Swarbrick said.
Te’o’s girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was said to be injured in a car accident about six months prior to her death and was hospital-ridden in a coma for some time. She recovered, but then died Sept. 11, hours after his grandmother. The same day, Te’o led the Fighting Irish to an upset victory over Michigan State — his inspiring story making national headlines.
But in December, Te’o received a phone call from his dead girlfriend’s phone number — with the woman’s voice he recognized as Kekua’s on the other line. Swarbrick said she tried to re-establish the relationship, making an excuse for why she’d faked her death.
On Dec. 26, the football star told his team’s coaches about the situation, and the university hired a private investigating firm to look into the case. The firm presented its findings to Te’o and his family Jan. 4, and the family planned to go public with the story next week, Swarbrick said.
According to Deadspin, a woman who was accused online of portraying Kekua’s sister on Twitter had once contacted Nev Schulman, star of Catfish and executive producer of the MTV show.
Swarbrick said it was unclear how many individuals were involved in the hoax, because people might have have been playing multiple parts. He told reporters there was never a face-to-face meeting between Te’o and his girlfriend.
“As part of the hoax, several meetings were set up where Lennay never showed,” he said. “It goes to the sophistication of this. There were all these sort of independent pieces that reinforce parts of the story all the way through.”
Prior to the press conference, Te’o released a statement.
“To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating,” he wrote.
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