Why do we care so much about Manti Te'o's fake girlfriend?

Jeff Gross

The national news story of the moment is a sports story with just about nothing to do with sports.

The story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o either being duped into believing he had a girlfriend named Lennay Kekua who eventually died of leukemia, making up a girlfriend and then pretend-cancering her or getting caught up in some combination of the two* might end up being the biggest unexpected sports story of the year.

Its coverage has dominated our site since it broke, along with almost any other outlet that covers college football, national television news, many outlets that don't even cover sports, Twitter and so forth. By "so forth" I'm including things that happen off of the internet, whatever those things are -- when we all broke for dinner last night before Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick's press conference, we talked about it and heard others at the next table talking about it, didn't we? Then we marveled at Swarbrick, watched the resulting greatest Evening Jones episode ever, fell asleep reading about it and woke up a minute or two early to make sure we hadn't missed anything (here's the latest!) overnight?

Why?

It's not the most important off-field story. At its core, either a college kid kept up a lie or was made to look like a fool by some other kids. Those have both happened without ceasing since college kids were first discovered.

Obviously the details matter. Te'o wasn't just a football player, he was the most important Notre Dame player in decades and a legit Heisman contender (though if this linebacker was worthy, many others over the years were even more so). The story of his girlfriend was part of his legend, whether he and his father actively cultivated it or did things like this out of total innocence. By December, you couldn't tell The Heisman Story [/piano tinkling] of a Heisman finalist without talking about Kekua, whether you'd actually ever heard her name or seen her photo or not.

The mystery element counts too, especially with the Catfish movie and TV series priming the public for an episode to happen in a real-life story it'd already been following. Further, that all of (almost all of) sports media swallowed the Notre Dame story whole -- not a single red flag was raised in all of this? How'd we pull that one off? Topic!

(Also, between this and AJ McCarron's girlfriend, we've now spent all of the college football season talking about the girlfriends of players. It's like Katherine Webb was part of the totally mundane opening act that was followed by a head-first internet collision.)

But still. No explanation I can form really gets to the core of why this story is so universally interesting and for so many hours. We haven't even heard from Te'o himself (Pat Forde reports today could be the day), let alone the perpetrator, and I'm sure we'll make it to those points with appetites fully ready for more. There's a Catfish episode to be watched.

The most amazing thing about all this might be that I've yet to see a single, "Who cares?" comment on a story here or a story elsewhere or on Twitter. Everything gets a, "Who cares?" comment, but not this? Not even a, "How is this sports news?" comment?

I care, and don't know why. Everyone cares about this kid's made-up girlfriend, and everyone assumes that everyone else cares about this kid's made-up girlfriend. This is the internet, where half of the people who click on an item actively do not care about that item, with at least one guy making it known in the comments that he does not care at all about the thing he's just clicked on. That's not happening here.

Do you know why you care?

* This looks to be the likeliest story, at the moment. It's becoming clear he was likely hoaxed for at least a while, though his teammates reportedly sniffed it out. According to Swarbrick, Te'o learned in skin-crawling fashion on Dec. 6 that Kekua wasn't real. But he then said two days later, "I don't like cancer at all. I lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer."

That could be something said out of personal denial or out of a desire to keep the story going, whether due to self-promotion or embarrassment or family pressure or a sense that he shouldn't let people down. Not speculating, just offering other conclusions. I don't really like combing through a kid's record of statements, looking for the loose brick that'll bring down the whole facade.

Look through SB Nation's many excellent college football blogs to find your team's community.

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