Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o answers a question during NCAA college football media day in South Bend, Ind. on Aug. 16, 2012. / Joe Raymond, Associated Press
When someone tells a fish story, it means they're telling a great, big whopper of a lie.
New times call for new idioms. The Manti Te'o story appears more of a catfish story. The reference is to a certain kind of Internet dating hoax and comes from a 2010 documentary film and a new MTV reality series.
The term, says Parry Aftab, Internet privacy and security lawyer, is one of many for "anybody who pretends to be someone who they're not on social media. It's done all the time."
In the Catfish movie, Nev Schulman meets a woman online named Megan and falls in love. Spoiler alert: He later learns he's been scammed. Megan is not a 19-year-old woman but a married, middle-aged woman.
Now Schulman is co-host of Catfish: The TV Show. On one episode, a woman finds out her online boyfriend is really another woman, echoing the classic New Yorker cartoon of a hound tapping on a computer who says, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."
Before this week, Te'o was famous as a football star from Notre Dame with a heart-tugging tale backlit by the tragic death of his girlfriend.
But he's infamous now: Tens of thousands of Americans who pay no attention to college football and had never heard of him before Wednesday's bombshell want to know what in the world is going on.
This much is certain: Lennay Kekua is not dead because she is not real. The question is whether Te'o was scammer or scammed.
Schulman, who tried to contact Te'o over Twitter but has not heard from him, says he believes Te'o's story - up to a point.
"My gut feeling â?¦ is that he got involved in this unknowingly," Schulman told USA TODAY Sports, "and that his relationship with Lennay was organic and legitimate but that perhaps he was aware of the fact that his relationship could be somewhat false and was a little bit hesitant to get into the details of it and even possibly at first really call this person a girlfriend. But when the story sort of turned into what it is, he may have become aware of certain things."
PHOTOS: MANTI TE'O CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
Deadspin.com broke the story Wednesday, and Notre Dame confirmed it hours later. Te'o put out a statement, saying he'd met a woman online with whom he "maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship" through frequent phone calls and online conversations. He called himself the victim of "someone's sick joke ."
John Heisler, Notre Dame's senior associate athletics director for media relations, received four e-mails Thursday from men who said they had been victims of Catfish-style online hoaxes. All gave long and detailed accounts of the alleged scams.
Max Joseph, co-host of the Catfish TV show said he and Schulman have had similar experiences.
"This is not an isolated phenomenon," Joseph told USA TODAY Sports. "It happens all the time all over the country and in fact all over the world. When the film came out, Nev pretty much believed this was a once-in-a-blue-moon kind of event. Once it came out, he started receiving thousands and thousands of e-mails from people who said they believed the same thing was happening to them, is happening to them, and that they were kind of too embarrassed to tell anyone about it until they saw his story.
"We both receive hundreds and hundreds of e-mails a week from people desperate to find out if this person they're talking to is real or not and whether or not we can help them. So this is not at all a new phenomenon. It's been going on for a while, and I think it just hit the tipping point."
Kekua's purported death from leukemia was lapped up by sports reporters from a range of publications from Sports Illustrated to the South Bend Tribune. The story was irresistible because it seemed to wake up the echoes of George Gipp, who lives in sainted memory, thanks to the double-barreled mythmaking machines of Hollywood and Notre Dame.
Te'o told reporters how Kekua died on the same September day as his grandmother - who did, in fact, die - and his play through twin tragedies emerged as one of the overarching story lines of Notre Dame's undefeated regular season.
That led the Fighting Irish to the Bowl Championship Series national championship game, where they lost to Alabama 42-14. That night ESPN cameras found Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron's very real beauty-queen girlfriend in the stands and Twitter blew up. Katherine Webb became famous overnight. That is one way the Internet works. Te'o's story, however it winds up, is another.
"Whatever the outcome of this case is, it sounds like, without people knowing it, he was a very vulnerable guy," said New York-based parenting psychologist Susan Bartell. "If it happened, if it was real in terms of him not being a part of it, then you feel sorry for him that he was scammed. If he created the whole thing, you have to feel sorry for him that he needed to do that.
"Either way it sounds like he's a confused vulnerable guy. Being a football player and being big doesn't mean you don't have emotional vulnerabilities."
Te'o's teammates reacted with disbelief when they heard about the hoax, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to speak. He thinks most of Notre Dame's football players, if not all, did not know Te'o's girlfriend was fictional until Wednesday.
Does this person believe Te'o's account that he was duped?
"I do believe him," that person told USA TODAY Sports. "He's naÃ¯ve. I've heard his answers. I believe he's guilty of being naÃ¯ve and of embellishing to hide his embarrassment over a girlfriend he had never met."
Besides, that person wondered, why he would lie about it - and then be on board when Notre Dame wanted to have a group of private investigators attempt to get to the bottom of it. And why he didn't try to discourage the idea of hiring a P.I. firm.
Pierre Khoury, founder of a private investigative firm not involved in the case, told USA TODAY Sports, "If this really happened the way (Te'o) reported it, it's a crime and he's a victim."
Aftab, the Internet privacy and security lawyer, is executive director of WiredSafety.org, an online safety, education and help group. She thinks the mystery will be solved in time.
"In any cyber incident, everything is digitized," she said. "The evidence can be tracked and traced. There are always three parties - you, the recipient and Verizon (or another online carrier). Verizon doesn't erase its information. Lies don't last long when they're online."
The National Consumers League, a non-profit organization that collects data on consumer fraud, ranked "friendship & sweetheart swindles" as the seventh most frequent scam of 2011 with 1.4% of the total data collected.
John Breyault, director of the NCL's fraud center, said the feelings Te'o expressed in his statement on Wednesday are characteristic of those victimized by this type of fraud.
"It's embarrassed. It's ashamed," he said. "I think that's what most victims feel when they found out they've been strung along and they think they're in love with somebody."
Joseph, the TV co-host, says the idea of an Internet scammer telling his or her prey that they've been in a car accident or have a fatal disease is consistent with how many of these stories play out.
"The biggest red flag is generally serious accidents or grave illness that either befall the catfish themselves or people close to them," Joseph said. "Because serious illness or accidents provide the perfect excuse to not meet up and to basically tell the other person to back off and stop asking questions."
Contributing: Michelle Healy, Mike Lopresti and George Schroeder
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
Read the original story: Manti Te'o's 'Catfish' story is a common one