Let’s Revisit the Manti Te’o Hoax
Welcome to part 20 of our Internet Nostalgia series, which looks back at phenomena that captured the internet’s imagination and attention for a fleeting moment and then vanished as everyone moved on to something else. This series looks back at those olden times and what they told us about the internet and ourselves. If you have a suggested topic, email me at email@example.com. Last week: The Crying Jordan meme. This week: The Manti Te’o hoax.
When: January 16, 2013
The Story: Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o hadn’t just been one of the best players in college football for the 2012 season: He had been its most inspiring story. He had been playing that whole season in honor of his late girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who had died (on the same day, September 11, no less, as his grandmother) just before the season began. Te’o dedicated his season to Kekua’s memory, as well as his grandmother’s. This made Te’o an irresistible media story, including a cover story about Te’o overcoming Kekua’s death in Sports Illustrated (since deleted from the Internet) and a soft focus feature on ESPN.
But in January 2013, two reporters from Deadspin (full disclosure: I founded Deadspin in 2005; the site died in November 2019), Jack Dickey and Timothy Burke, received an anonymous tip encouraging them to look into the Kekua story. The story did not take them long to report out and unraveled almost immediately. Deadspin’s piece laid out the hoax in intricate detail: Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax. The story was an atomic bomb in the sports world. It blew everyone’s mind. Even though, as Burke and Dickey repeatedly noted, it was so simple to discover the truth; it only took a couple of phone calls. But, tellingly, no one had thought to check.