A guide to the Te'o truthers

Was Te'o an evil genius? A victim? Gay? Here's a roundup of the theories behind the Notre Dame linebacker's scandal

By Katie McDonough

Published January 17, 2013 11:12PM (EST)

You don't have to follow sports (I sure don't!) to be intrigued by the saga of Manti Te'o and his dearly departed fake girlfriend, Lennay Kekua. It's just too juicy to ignore.

It's got love! Death! Religion! Fame! Internet intrigue!

I mean, really!

So was Te'o the victim of a hoax? Or an evil genius who concocted a tragedy to win fans and fame as he contended for the Heisman trophy? Or a closeted gay Mormon who acted out of desperation?

The story is still unfolding, so today it's anyone's guess.

A roundup of the theories circulating on the biggest sports/Internet/dating/maybe gay/death hoax story ever to happen this week.

He wanted the Heisman

Though he didn't win it, Te'o was among the top candidates for the trophy, which goes to the best college football player in the United States. So the theory, popular on Twitter, goes like this: Hoping to dupe the Heisman committee with a story of bravery in the face of tragedy, Te'o orchestrated an elaborate lie about the death of his "girlfriend" and grandmother. That sicko!

Holes in the theory: As one commenter wrote on CNN:

"To make it up, he'd have to have been scheming enough to make it just elaborate enough and just the right story to get people to pay attention. He'd also have to have known that he would have played really well the exact game that she "died."

Probability: 1 out of 4 catfish

His success-mad father made him do it

Te'o's father, Brian, claimed to have spoken to his son's girlfriend on the phone, leading some to believe that he was not just in on the hoax, but perhaps orchestrated it to boost his son's profile. According to a report in the South Bend Tribune, Brian Te'o alluded to maybe sort of  "meeting" Lennay Kekua himself:

"They started out as just friends. Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there. But within the last year, they became a couple."

Was he being a loving father, corroborating his son's lie to save him from embarrassment or a dastardly mastermind?

Holes in the theory: Not many. It's possible that Brian is a power-mad stage dad who concocted the story to boost his son's brand -- and help market him for the NFL draft. Parents have done far crazier stuff.

Probability: 2 out of 4 catfish

He's gay

Cyd Zeigler Jr. of OutSports.com writes he has been bombarded "on email, text, Twitter and phone calls about [Teo's] sexual orientation” since the story broke.

Zeigler writes that creating a fake girlfriend is a good a way as any to cover up one’s homosexuality:

I can certainly understand why people think this might be pointing to his sexual orientation. There has never been a publicly out NFL player. There has never been a publicly out Div. 1 football player. But we know they’re out there. And if they were out there and wanted to hide their sexual orientation — or a relationship with another man — a fictitious girlfriend is a good way to do it. The fantastic story about car accidents and death by leukemia would just be showing off that stereotypical gay flair for the dramatic.

Holes in the theory: Hard to say. Te'o is a Mormon, a religion that frowns on being gay, so it's possible that his faith -- and the homophobic culture of college and professional sports -- led to him to construct the girlfriend story.

Probability: 3 out of 4 catfish

He got "Catfish'd"

He was taken in by an elaborate Internet ruse! Blinded by infatuation, Te'o suspended disbelief to keep his online love affair with "Lennay Kekua" alive. He seems to admit as much in his statement to the press:

"This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online," Te'o said in a statement. "We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her."

Holes in the theory: Te'o himself has said the pair talked on the phone -- sometimes for eight hours at a time -- but, as of yet, no one has stepped forward as the hoaxer. Then again, he could have fibbed a little, and these "phone calls" may have been marathon Facebook chat sessions.

Probability: 1 out of 4 catfish

It started out as a small lie, then took on a life of its own

KansasCity.com sportswriter Sam Mellinger has perhaps the most sympathetic reading of Te'o-gate yet: He is a young guy who got caught up in a really small lie. What if Te'o told his teammates that he had a girlfriend as part of some standard locker room banter? Mellinger goes on to ask:

What if it started out as a small lie? What if it started out as, yeah, I have this girlfriend and then it got publicized and Te’o wanted to avoid the humiliation so he kept it going? What if he started an online communication, a phone call here and there, and by the time the media and public knew about this girlfriend he didn’t want to go back?

It’s not too hard to imagine a college kid getting caught up in something, trying to cover for what (in retrospect seems like a small) embarrassment and unwittingly creating a bigger one? In this scenario, Te’o wouldn’t be the publicity-hungry a-hole the person in the Deadspin report thinks him to be, but he also wouldn’t be entirely innocent.

Holes in the theory: None to speak of. It just depends on what side you come out on. Do you think Te'o is an attention-hungry egomaniac or a 21-year-old kid?

Probability: 2 out of 4 catfish

Lennay Kekua is real!

The Arizona Cardinals fullback Reagan Maui'a claims to have met Kekua in person while doing charity work in American Samoa with other teammates in June 2011.

"This was before her and Manti," ESPN reported Maui'a as saying. "I don't think Manti was even in the picture, but she and I became good friends. We would talk off and on, just checking up on each other kind of thing. I am close to her family. When she was going through the loss of her father, I was – I offered a comforting shoulder and just someone to bounce her emotions off. That was just from meeting her in Samoa."

Holes in the theory: No one else in the world has ever met Kekua. Not even Te'o, who is supposed to have been dating her.

Probability: 0 out of 4 catfish

Too much to read? Just watch this to fill in the gaps:

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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