Monday 11 December 2017

American Football: Weird tale of when Manti met Lennay

Eamonn Sweeney

Among the many reasons for loving America is the fact that it's very hard to beat the place for sheer downright weirdness. And now the home of Jimmy Swaggart, Pee-Wee Herman and Mitt Romney has given us one of the strangest stories of all-time.

You may remember this column followed the remarkable season of the Notre Dame college football team. Having kicked it off in Dublin, Notre Dame made it to the national title game where they were creamed by Alabama. Their star player was linebacker Manti Te'o whose outstanding season was rendered transcendentally inspirational when he played a major match against Michigan in the week that his grandmother and girlfriend both died.

Except it now turns out that his girlfriend, one Lennay Kekua, didn't die that week. She didn't die for the simple reason that she never existed, or rather she existed on the internet and nowhere else, something discovered last week by the sports blog Deadspin. And fair play to Deadspin because the US sports media had fallen for the story hook, line and sinker.

But if someone tells you their girlfriend has died, the question, "Can you prove she was alive in the first place?" isn't the first one that comes to mind. The question on everyone's lips now is whether Te'o has been the victim of a hoax or whether he connived in it.

Te'o has insisted that his relationship with his imaginary girlfriend was carried out online so he couldn't have known. And Notre Dame have backed him by portraying their star as an innocent victim. However, the man allegedly behind the hoax, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, is an acquaintance of Te'o and Deadspin quote a friend of his as saying they were "80 per cent sure Manti Te'o was in on it . . . The sheer quantity of falsehoods about Manti's relationship with Lennay makes that friend, and another relative of Ronaiah's, believe Te'o had to know the truth." Respected journalist Rick Telander has speculated Te'o and his father went along with with the scam because they thought it would give him a better chance of winning the Heisman Trophy.

Certainly, reading the transcript of a Sports Illustrated interview with Te'o during which the player talks of conversations not just with Lennay but with her family, you feel that if he's telling the truth quite a few people would have had to be involved in an immensely complex deception.

But pity the poor old South Bend Tribune, Notre Dame's local paper, which told its readers that when Manti met Lennay, "Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te'o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes". It's going to make one hell of a movie.

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