On January 16, 2013, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbick called a press conference to address one of the most bizarre stories college football had ever seen.
Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's star linebacker, had been speaking all season about the death of his girlfriend--a girl he said had passed away after a battle with leukemia.
But after a Deadspin.com report revealed that the girlfriend did not actually exist, Te'o, Swarbrick and Notre Dame had many questions to answer. Swarbrick attempted to answer many of them at that news conference, excerpts of which can be read here.
Swarbrick's opening statement: My focus here tonight is to talk to you about what the University knew, when we knew it, and what decisions we made based on that information. Much of what drove that process and those decisions relates in part to a fundamental view of the importance of student privacy, and that will likely play a role tonight also because, at the end of the day, this is Manti's story to tell and we believe he should have the right to tell it, which he is going to do. So there may be some questions this evening which I defer to him, but I will try to be as responsive as I possibly can to all of your questions. While we still don't know all of the dimensions of this and other than the perpetrators, I can assure you that no one knows all of the dimensions of this there are certain things that I feel confident we do know. The first is that this was a very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax perpetrated for reasons we can't fully understand but had a certain cruelty at its core, based on the exchanges that we were able to see between some of the people who perpetrated it. Manti was the victim of that hoax. Manti is the victim of that hoax, and he will carry that with him for a while.
Swarbick on Te'o: In many ways, Manti was the perfect mark because he is a guy who is so willing to believe in others and so ready to help that, as this hoax played out in a way that called upon those tendencies of Manti and roped him more and more into the trap. He was not a person who would have a second thought about offering his assistance and help in engaging fully. Finally and reflective of that, I want to stress, as someone who has probably been as engaged in this as anyone in the past couple of weeks, that nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te'o one iota. The same great young man, great student, and great athlete that we have been so proud to have be a member of our family is the same guy tonight, unchanged in any way, except for, as he indicated in a statement in his release, the embarrassment associated with having been a victim in this case.
Swarbick on how the hoax was revealed: On the morning of December 26th, very early morning, Manti called his coaches to inform them that, while he was in attendance at the ESPN awards show in Orlando, he received a phone call from a number he recognized as having been that he associated with Lennay Kekua. When he answered it, it was a person whose voice sounded like the same voice he had talked to, who told him that she was, in fact, not dead. Manti was very unnerved by that, as you might imagine. I will let him again talk about that and his reaction to it. But he maintained that secret vis a vis the members of the football family until he called the coaches on the morning of the 26th. They promptly reached out to me to inform me of this shocking piece of news, and I arranged to meet Manti upon his return to campus and did so on the afternoon of the 27th. I met with Manti for about an hour and 45 minutes and asked him to review every detail of the relationship as he knew it with this woman. Manti did so, was forthright, answered every question, and was eager to share the information with me.
Swarbrick on 'Catfishing': It is a scam--I'm probably revealing my television watching habits--but it was covered by Dr. Phil extensively recently that follows the exact arc of this, and it's perpetrated with shocking frequency for me shocking as an older guy who's not as versed in the online world and it is just as this one. An initial casual engagement, a developing relationship online, a subsequent trauma traffic accident, illness and then a death. As hard as it is for me to get my arms around this, there's apparently some sport in doing this, in being able to do it successfully.
Swarbrick on the perpetrators of the scheme: There are a remarkable number of characters involved. We don't know how many people they represent. There are male and female characters, brothers, cousins, mother, and we don't know if it's two people playing multiple characters or multiple people. But, again, it goes to the sophistication of this, that there are all these sort of independent pieces that reinforce elements of the story all the way through. Somebody else called brother, cousin, et cetera.
Swarbrick on how Notre Dame handled the story: There was a very vigorous discussion internally about what we do. 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?
Swarbrick on the lessons of the hoax: As a parent of four children, it's been a really frightening experience. For people my age, this is unfathomable. Versions of this in different forms we would understand, but the sort of online social media, virtual nature of this, it's hard for us hard for me. I should speak for myself to get my arms around. We know, for example, that these perpetrators didn't limit themselves to Manti in the targets. So my first reaction, frankly, was as a father. You know, the way in which young people, students or student athletes, my children, are at risk in this environment to things like this because you just don't know who you're dealing with.
Swarbrick on how Te'o could fall in love with a woman he never met: Manti lives his life on his sleeve, and he is out there. As I said earlier and I don't think this was an accident they understood, given the nature, the extraordinary nature of this man, the more trouble she was in car accident, diagnosis of leukemia, failing health the more engaged he would become, the more focused he would become, and the more dedicated he would become, and that's exactly what happened here. And for those who are suspicious that that can happen in sort of a virtual environment, I think there are a lot of examples out there that suggest otherwise.