“In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious,” Te’o said in a statement earlier in the week. “If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was.”
Te’o has company. As Notre Dame rose to No. 1 in the AP Top 25, sport writers nationwide recounted the story of the heroic, grieving athlete who persevered on the field after a girlfriend named Lennay Kekua was diagnosed with leukemia. Te’o and his family provided them with plenty of stories about the relationship, and no one figured out it was fiction until Deadspin.com broke that news this past week.
In his first interview since, Te’o told ESPN he had lied to his father about having met Kekua. To cover that up, he apparently lied to everyone else.
“That goes back to what I did with my dad. I knew that. I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn’t meet,” Te’o said during the off-camera interview Friday. “So I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away.”
The fact is that many people don’t like to admit that they find love online, let alone that they might be misled by someone they’ve met that way.
For a young woman in Chicago, it started last February when a potential love interest responded to a personal ad she’d posted in the Craigslist “W4M” section. They communicated for several months online, first by email, and then instant messaging and then online voice chat.
She sent him her photo. He delayed sending his, again and again, and put off meeting in person. He wasn’t ready, he told her. It bothered her, but she was so taken with the ease and intimacy of their long, daily conversations _ about their lives and their jobs, their family and friends, even sex.
After this went on for eight months, he abruptly deleted his email and Yahoo Messenger accounts, the only means she’d had to reach him. She didn’t even know his last name and wouldn’t know him if he passed her on the street.
“It all sounds ridiculous when you’re not immersed in the situation, but when you are, it’s incredibly easy to get sucked in and not want out,” said the 23-year-old, a young professional who shared her story on the condition of anonymity, still hesitant to admit how truly heartbroken she was over a person she’d never met in person.
Te’o offered similar details Friday, telling ESPN he never met Kekua face-to-face and when he tried to speak with her via Skype and video phone calls, the picture was blocked. Still, he said he didn’t figure out the ruse.
After he was told Kekua had died of leukemia in early September, Te’o admitted he misled the public about the nature of the “relationship” because he was uncomfortable saying it was purely an electronic romance. Skeptics remain, including some young adults accustomed to making connections on the Internet and by text message.
“Maybe I’d be more inclined to buy it if he was an everyday `Joe Schmoe,’ but with his fame, I can’t imagine it happening,” said Jennifer Marcus, a 26-year-old New Yorker who blogs about dating and other topics. “To me it seems like he did it for sympathy, or maybe has a few screws loose like a ton of people in this world. People go to great lengths to fit in.”
For the 23-year-old Chicagoan, her experience online hasn’t led her to swear off using Craigslist and the OkCupid website to find dates. She has, however, started heeding the red flags she once ignored, she says, and cuts off communication with anyone who won’t meet with her in person.
“I don’t want my time wasted again with someone who isn’t willing to give the same amount of transparency and availability that I am,” she said. “I’m planning a third date with someone who is very much the person he claimed to be.”
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