Under the guise of a “get,” ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap has been enlisted as an unofficial P.R. agent for linebacker Manti Te’o. And Schaap spent extensive time on SportsCenter presenting Te’o's side of the story, serving as the indirect mouthpiece for a man who claims no involvement in a hoax but who after months of talking freely and loosely on camera suddenly has no desire to do so.
Schaap opened his extensive on-air monologue by vouching for Te’o's credibility.
“He answered every question I asked,” Schaap said. “He didn’t seem nervous. He seemed to be able to communicate clearly about everything that had happened over the course of several years in his relationship with Lennay Kekua. To my ears, he made a very convincing witness in his own defense. I’m sure people will form their own judgments when we have a chance to put out more of what he said. I don’t know how many questions were asked, but as I said he answered all of them, really unflinchingly. If he’s making up his side of the story, he’s a very convincing actor. Of course, there were suggestions over the last couple of days — more than suggestions, theories posited — about whether he was a party to this hoax, if he just helped perpetuate this hoax. He adamantly denies having anything to do with it, and I asked him directly about that.”
After Schaap explained the situation for roughly 10 minutes, he was asked about Te’o's demeanor.
“He was very composed, he was very collected,” Schaap said. “There wasn’t any hemming or hawing. He certainly seemed to have his timeline down straight. I did not detect any inconsistencies. And I think, you know, significantly from his point of view anyway, when it was over he was relieved. He said he was very relieved to have unburdened himself of this."
Schaap vouched for Te’o's credibility once again in explaining why Te’o didn’t want to do the interview on camera.
“Obviously we would have preferred to do this on camera,” Schaap said. “He felt more comfortable in a setting without cameras, felt he could be more relaxed without a lot of people in the room. Wanted this to be as natural a setting as possible. I think it would have been beneficial to him to do this on camera because as I said he was very composed and collected but that’s not what he wanted to do. It’s not the first time somebody hasn’t wanted to do an interview on camera.”
Schaap is right, but it’s the first time the otherwise camera-eager Te’o has spurned a camera. And so instead of giving the audience at large an opportunity to watch him explain himself, the conduit to Te’o's overall credibility is the guy who was granted an interview that Te’o didn’t have to give at all. That fact naturally will make the interviewer — whoever it is — more inclined to paint the subject of the interview in a positive light.
Indeed, a questioner less friendly to Te’o's predicament could have led the report with this statement: “Te’o admitted that he never met the fake dead girlfriend, and that he lied to his family about meeting her.” Choosing to focus on that aspect of the interview at the outset of the report would have prompted many to instantly wonder whether, if he lied to his family about meeting her, he’s lying to the rest of us about his lack of involvement in the hoax.
“I knew that — I even knew, that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn’t meet, and that alone — people find out that this girl who died, I was so invested in, I didn’t meet her, as well,” Te’o told Schaap. “So I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away, so that people wouldn’t think that I was some crazy dude.”
In a court of law, having someone admit to a lie is powerful, because it gives the lawyer more than enough ammunition to argue that everything the person says shouldn’t be taken at face value, and possibly shouldn’t be believed at all.
And while Schaap claimed he detected no inconsistencies, Schaap’s explanation of Te’o's ongoing references in the media to his dead girlfriend after learning that she wasn’t dead speaks to a stew of potential inconsistencies that, if fully and completely probed, could expose a flaw that would be fatal to Te’o's entire story.
“[Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick] said that on December 6, Te’o got a phone call from a person who he believed to be Lennay Kekua, who he thought had died on September 12,” Schaap explained. “Te’o says he did get that phone call on December 6, but that did not convince him that this had all been a hoax. That took longer to get around to. But between December 6 and December 26, when he went to Notre Dame to tell them about the problem, he continued to talk about Lennay Kekua, his girlfiend, in several interviews, including an interview with our Chris Fowler during the Heisman Trophy presentation on December 8th. And [Te'o] explained why that happened, because he said he wasn’t convinced that Lennay Kekua hadn’t died, that she was a hoax, now he was thinking maybe she was alive. She had given him some story about drug dealers.”
So why did he keep referring to her as being dead?
There are more tidbits that appeared not in Schaap’s on-air report (or in the original ESPN.com story that contained only 32 words from Te’o regarding his denial of involvement) that make us wonder how Te’o could have been oblivious to the existence of a hoax, which based on his admission that he lied to his father would cause a reasonable person to wonder whether he’s lying to the rest of us now.
First, the latest ESPN.com article says that “T’eo tried to speak with Kekua via Skype and FaceTime on several occasions, but the person at the other end of the line was in what he called a ‘black box’ and wasn’t seen.” Second, the ESPN.com article says that Te’o “planned to meet Kekua in person several times, including in Los Angeles and Hawaii, but on each occasion she called off the meeting or sent others in her place.” Third, the ESPN.com article explains that “Kekua once requested his checking account number in order to send him money,” but that “Te’o did not provide his account number.” Fourth, the ESPN.com article says that Te’o didn’t go see her in the hospital when she was recovering from a car accident or battling leukemia because “it never crossed my mind” to do so. Fifth, the ESPN.com article says that Te’o didn’t attend Kekua’s funeral because “her mom didn’t want me to come."
Perhaps the strangest question arises from Te’o's claim to Schaap that, as explained by Schaap on air, “[r]ight up until a few hours before the Deadspin story broke two days ago [Te'o] wasn’t quite sure what happened but at that time he got a phone call from Ronaiah Tuiasospo in which he admitted that he had perpetrated this hoax and in a series of communications also apologized for it.” The notion that Te’o "wasn’t quite sure what happened” until “a few hours before” the story broke doesn’t mesh with the very clear picture painted Wednesday night by Swarbrick of extensive meetings and a private investigation with a comprehensive report, or with the reported plan by Te’o to go public with the hoax two days before the story broke.
The only conclusion that we draw from any of this is that it’s still too early to draw any conclusions. Te’o's uncle has raised a potential financial incentive via raising funds for leukemia victims hasn’t been explored and wasn’t even mentioned anywhere in the on-air or online ESPN reports.
If Tuiasosopo used the fake dead girlfriend as a way to raise money, with or without the knowledge or assistance of Te’o, the appropriate authorities should look into the situation. Indeed, the request for checking account numbers could be enough to green light a criminal investigation. A high-profile case like this one would, if any laws were broken, send a strong message of deterrence to anyone who is tempted to “catfish” not for sport, but for profit.