Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick has been involved in a lot of situations during his storied law and athletic administrative career. However, calling a late-night news conference to discuss among other topics: possible extortion of one of the university's most revered student-athletes, a faked death and an MTV show called “Catfish,” probably set a new standard – albeit a low one – for one of the nation's most notable athletic leaders.
Swarbrick met with the media to discuss what has to be the most bizarre story involving Notre Dame athletics, perhaps ever.
It was widely reported during the 2012 season that Fighting Irish All-American linebacker Manti Te'o maintained a relationship with a female named Lennay Kekua, whom he many times referred to as his girlfriend. Kekua reportedly passed away in September, but the specific dates of her death varied in numerous articles according to a report by Deadspin.com on Wednesday.
Why Swarbrick was discussing the matter on Wednesday was due to the Web site's claim that not only did the heart-wrenching story of the 2012 Heisman Trophy runner-up losing his girlfriend not actually occur, the young woman never even existed. But she did to Te'o, according to the athletic director.
“Manti was the victim of that hoax,” Swarbrick explained. “Manti is the victim of that hoax, and he will carry that with him for a while.”
The ruse was discovered when Te'o received a phone call from Kekua, whom he shared an “exclusively online” relationship with, on December 6 while attending an awards ceremony in Orlando.
According to Swarbrick, Te'o “became startled, shocked,” but elected not to alert anyone until meeting with his parents in Hawaii over the Christmas break.
“He wanted to talk to his parents,” Swarbrick said. “He wanted to talk to them in person. He went home for Christmas break. That's Manti. That's the son he is. He wanted to have that conversation with his parents face to face. He wanted to consult with them, wanted to get their advice, and it was on the basis of that conversation, after having concluded it, that he called us.”
Searching for details
Te'o informed Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly and associate head coach Bob Diaco on Dec. 26, which was followed by a nearly two hour meeting with Swarbrick the next day.
“I met with Manti and asked him to review every detail of the relationship as he knew it with this woman,” Swarbrick said. “Manti did so, was forthright, answered every question, and was eager to share the information with me.
I met with him again the next day, as I had put the notes together from the previous day's meeting, to just review again what we had gone over to make sure I had all the details correct. And, again, he was a full and excellent partner in making sure that the information I collected was accurate.”
The university then hired a private investigative firm that “had a special expertise in this sort of thing, who had experience of tracking online activity,” according to Swarbrick.
“There was a very vigorous discussion internally about what we do,” Swarbrick said. “What is my obligation at this point? It was governed by a few things. One is we didn't know a lot. So until the investigators had done their work, I didn't know we were talking about a girl who faked her death, a girl who didn't exist. We just didn't have any of that information.
We had no idea as to motive, and that was really significant to us. We're in a unique business here. Was there somebody trying to create an NCAA violation at the core of this? Was there somebody trying to impact the outcome of football games by manipulating the emotions of a key player? Was there an extortion request coming? When you match the sort of lack of detail we still lacked until we got some help investigating it with the risk involved in some of these possible scenarios, it was clear to me that, until we knew more, we had to just continue to work to try to gather the facts.
It's in Teo's hands
The firm reported back to Swarbrick on Jan. 4 and while in Miami the next day for the upcoming BCS National Championship game, Swarbrick met with Manti's parents, Brian and Ottilia Te'o, and essentially left the situation in their hands.
“We left that meeting with an understanding that they would think about what they had heard, engaged Manti's future representation, which would be determined later in the week, in consultation as to how to best respond, and keep the university fully informed of their intentions and work in concert with us when they were ready to communicate the story,” Swarbrick explained.
According to Swarbrick, the Te'o family was prepared to tell the story next week, but the report on Deadspin.com beat them to it.
Who is behind all of this?
The report alleges that the scam's mastermind was a former California high school football player, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, whom Te'o has a close relationship with.
The report alleges that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo conned a former – and beautiful - high school classmate into sending him a photograph and he then set up various social media accounts using her likeness and the name Lennay Kekua.
The South Bend Tribune reported that Te'o met the woman following a game at Stanford, where she was a student, in November of 2011. However, Te'o's father told the newspaper that the couple had met as far back as 2009. To confuse the matter further, Te'o sent Kekua a tweet on Oct. 11, 2011 saying “nice to meet u too ma'am.”
But Swarbrick was staunch in his response that Te'o insisted that the two had an “exclusively online” relationship and had actually never met.
At the time of her death, Te'o did not travel to any funeral services because it was reported that Kekua had insisted that he continue playing and not miss any games. Swarbrick said that “given the elaborateness of this (hoax), there was a place to send flowers, and that was there was no detail of the hoax left undone in that.”
Are there legal ramifications to this?
At this point, the Te'o family is responsible for any pursuit from a legal standpoint against the perpetrators, who continued to be “persistent” in their calling of Manti through the month of December, but have since slowed in their number of contacts to the player. And Swarbrick wasn't sure what could be done about the situation anyway.
“That question had the potential to be central to how you manage this once it surfaced because a clear case of illegality would have been extortion, and one very legitimate response, I think, that Te'o might have opted for here was to let this play out and see if that came when he signed a contract or had some resources,” Swarbrick said. “They opted not to do that, but those are the sorts of things that impacted the thinking relative to timing and how you deal with this story. On its face, I'll let somebody else who's still practicing law to interpret whether anything has been done to date constitutes criminal conduct. I haven't pursued that question.”