As Deadspin laid out in brutal detail on Wednesday, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend is neither dead nor Manti Te’o’s girlfriend nor a corporeal being. Te’o and Lennay Kekua never met on the field at Stanford, never hung out together in Hawaii, and didn’t talk on the phone each night as she lay dying of leukemia. As we wait to learn more details of this amazing hoax, it’s worth examining the second-biggest mystery of the Manti Te’o fake girlfriend saga: How did the sports media come to spread this phony story?
The writer who did the most to popularize Te’o’s tale of triumph over tragedy was Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel. In late September, Thamel wrote that the Notre Dame star “played remarkably well under the most depressing of circumstances—the death of his girlfriend and grandmother within [a] 24-hour span before the Irish's game against Michigan State.” (The part about his grandmother's death is true.) In the Oct. 1 edition of the magazine, which placed Te’o on the cover and noted that the linebacker “has restored the shine to the Golden Dome,” Thamel reported the precise date of Lennay Kekua’s supposedly almost-deadly car accident (April 28) and stated that her “relatives told [Te’o] that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice.” And in a Dec. 20 piece, Thamel explained that Kekua wrote Te’o a series of inspirational notes before her passing, and that her brother Kainoa and sister U’ilani “would read the letters to Manti” to help soothe his pain. "It's given me a sense of strength and perseverance," the Heisman Trophy finalist told the Sports Illustrated writer.
If Thamel or anyone else at SI had used Nexis or Google, they would’ve discovered that Lennay Kekua (not to mention her brother and sister) didn’t exist. A reporter doesn’t expect to learn that his subject's dead girlfriend is nothing but a fake Twitter avatar. But a reporter, especially at a fact-checked magazine like SI, also doesn’t generally put someone’s name into print and say that she smashed up her car on April 28 without confirming the spelling and the wreckage. That assumption of basic competence filters down to everyone else in the sports media ecosystem: If Manti Te’o’s story of woe is in Sports Illustrated, then it must be true.