Before yesterday afternoon, Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o was famous for playing through an amazing season despite facing a set of personal tragedies. Now Te’o is infamous — thanks to a Deadspin investigation that revealed his beloved, cancer-stricken girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, to be the product of an elaborate hoax.
As of today, it’s unclear whether Te’o was duped by an online prankster, as he claims in this statement, or actively collaborated with Kekua’s creator in order to drum up publicity for his 2012 Heisman campaign. (Te’o ended up as the runner-up for that award.)
Either way, the story is the biggest thing to hit the world of college football — and perhaps even sports more generally — in quite some time. (Lance Armstrong’s got to be grateful that another athlete is taking the heat off him, right?) And naturally, the strange tale of Lennay Kekua is inspiring dozens of responses from every corner of media — including MTV, which spoke with Catfish star Nev Schulman about the scandal. Schulman was actually contacted by a woman who believed Kekua was a fake in December of last year, though he evidently chose not to look into her accusation.
Schulman knows a thing or two about being deceived by social media users. His relationship with a girl who — spoiler alert! — didn’t actually exist was the crux of 2010’s Catfish. That documentary was later adapted into an MTV series about people bringing their online relationships into the real world. Sometimes they’re overjoyed to discover that their partner is exactly who they thought he or she would be; other times they’re shocked to learn that the person they thought they knew is someone else entirely.
According to Schulman, anyone can be fooled by a well-crafted Internet persona. “I very much got sucked into a relationship — it wasn’t my intention, but it happened to me — and it happens slowly over time,” he told MTV. “And, of course, when you read an article all at once where it reveals all these stories and all these details, it seems crazy — but in the process of it, as it happens very slowly, things don’t seem so crazy.”
Considering his own history, it’s no surprise that Schulman is giving Te’o the benefit of the doubt. “It’s very embarrassing, of course. No one likes to admit that they got scammed or duped, especially when you retell the story in an abbreviated version. It generally sounds sort of ridiculous that you fell for it,” he said. “Since this is a national story, it will hopefully shed some more light and really spark a lot more conversations about what clearly me and [Catfish co-star] Max [Joseph] already know is a very real, very serious phenomenon that’s taking place.”
And Schulman himself may be the one leading those conversations, according to this tweet:
Oh yeah: It’s Catfish season. And just in case you’re worried about getting duped, here’s Schulman appearing on 20/20 just one week ago and explaining how to spot an online faker: