If you’ve turned on the news in the past three weeks, you’ve probably heard of Manti Te’o, the Samoan Mormon Notre Dame linebacker (like that’s not news enough) whose tragic losses in his personal life propelled him to lead the Fighting Irish to the National Championship game. You’ve also probably heard that Lennay Kekua, Te’o’s girlfriend who was said to have been in a car accident and later died of leukemia, was not a real person at all, but an internet profile created by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. What you may not have heard was that a CC senior helped break the story on Deadspin, a sports new site. Bwog Sports Editor Kevin Powers caught up with Jack Dickey, CC’13, to figure out how he broke the sports story of the year from his bedroom in Connecticut, after Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and CBS had all run pieces on the fictitious girlfriend without uncovering the truth. Jack, an English major graduating in May, writes for Deadspin and contributes to other sites like Gawker. Did we mention he’s a fan of Bwog?
Bwog: How did you get started working for Deadspin?
Jack Dickey: It was my sophomore year. I applied for an internship. It was going to be three days a week and I got that. I was doing it two mornings and a full Friday. I really like it here. I’ve been reading Deadspin since it started, which a lot of people say, but in my case it’s actually true. I’ve been reading it since I was 15, and I actually tried to apply as an intern in high school. I was in New York [where their offices are] so it was a nice fit and that was how I got started. They kept me around for the summer and paid me. Since junior year I’ve been doing about half school, half Deadspin.
Bwog: We were on break when you initially started investigating the story. How did you get involved away from school and how did that work as the story progressed?
JD: The thing is we are very wired. I probably do more talking with my coworkers over instant message, even if I’m in the office, than I do over talking. So there’s not a huge difference if you’re in another place. The guy who wrote the story with me, Tim Burke, is based in St. Petersburg, Florida. He’s full time at Deadspin but works at home from Florida and comes to New York two or three times a year. I was in Connecticut, my editors were [in New York], Burke was in Florida, and we were all doing it over instant message. But we’re used to communicating that way so it wasn’t a big problem. Once the story published, I had to come in because they wanted me on TV or whatever. It was nice to have people who wanted me on TV come drive me in from Connecticut, which I wasn’t expecting.
Bwog: I read that you initially got a tip from an email that Lennay wasn’t real. What about the tip sparked your interest? Did you have your suspicions about the Te’o and Lennay love story before receiving it?
JD: The suspicion was just regular skepticism over such a tidy, sappy story. I was interested in it because if it were true it would be the nuttiest hoax anyone pulled off in a long time, so I said, “I want to do this story.” Tim, who’s very skilled with social media digging, joined in, and Tommy [Craggs], our editor-in-chief, also joined in, and we all started chasing it together. No, I just thought it would be a cool story if it were true. I didn’t expect it would get this much attention, but I said, “this will be a big story, we should really get a hop on it.”
Bwog: Was there a major turning point in the investigation at which you knew you had enough to publish?
JD: We got the tip on a Friday and by the end of that Friday, probably 8:30 pm, we were pretty sure she didn’t exist — but it’s hard to prove someone doesn’t exist. Over the weekend there had been photos of her circulating around the Internet, and we saw them on a CBS morning broadcast about Te’o. Burke was able to find the real woman who was pictured and was not dead, did not go to Stanford, does not know Manti Te’o. Once we were able to find her, we said, “Okay, it’s much much much less likely that she exists because here’s a picture of her and it’s not her – we know it’s not her.” I think it was Monday morning that we put a name to the photo and were able to get in touch with the woman. At that point we said, “We have the story.”
Bwog: The story is incredibly bizarre. What was it like working on it and what was going through your head as you uncovered lie after lie?
JD: I mean the amazing thing was that the national sports media could miss this. Not that the fake girlfriend would be something they would necessarily catch, but they were doing these stories about her life – the story in Sports Illustrated, ESPN, CBS. Once they were repeating this woman’s name and giving details of her life and her death and stuff – it’s hard to imagine that none of that was checked sufficiently in the process. You can see in Sports Illustrated they wrote around it and tried to figure out a way to phrase it where they could leave as many details out as possible. They knew there was something not checking out, but they didn’t put it together. No, I mean, that was the craziest thing, that this person who was reported on everywhere, by outlets that have a lot more resources than Deadspin, didn’t exist.
Bwog: Had you heard of this phenomenon of “catfishing” before getting involved with this story? Or was the idea of this kind of online deception new to you?
JD: I knew of catfishing – though I’ve never seen the movie or the TV show. But it seems so hard to believe that someone like Manti Te’o would fall for it given the number of women who would presumably be attracted to him and available at Notre Dame. Also with the number of people surrounding him who are very concerned with his image and future. Those two things make him seem like a bad catfishing target. At the same time though, athletes definitely fall for this kind of thing, especially now with Twitter. You can talk to anyone and, you know, some atheletes see a hot girl with a Twitter profile, they’ll follow them or send a direct message and try to start up a fling. But the extent of the relationship with Te’o makes a difference, or he claims at least it was [a relationship] – I don’t know if I believe that.
Bwog: There’s obviously been a ton of coverage of this story since you and your colleagues broke it. Did you expect the story to blow up as much as it did?
JD: No. We expected it would be a big story in college sports; it would be a big story in sports media, but it transcended both of those. The fact that they were talking about it on Access Hollywood for a week, on the Today’s show for a week, Dr. Phil. Everybody just picked up the story and that was totally mystifying but also great for Deadspin.
Bwog: You’ve done a number of interviews since co-authoring the story. How many exactly?
JD: I probably did, I don’t know, seven TV interviews, and then about 20 radio appearences, and I’ve talked to some other guys… About 35, something like that.
Bwog: And how has that experience been for you?
JD: It’s been a lot of fun obviously, and I wasn’t expecting it. It’s nice to have a chance to talk about what we do here and our mission, and then it’s nice to blab about it like I’m blabbing to you. And of course, getting attention from Bwog, a publication I actually read –
Bwog: We’re happy to hear that!
JD: The best of both worlds! It hasn’t made too much of a difference. I have not had anybody on campus who I didn’t know already say anything to me about it, so I don’t think it’s penetrated the undergraduate consciousness that much.
Bwog: But a cool experience nonetheless. What’s up next for you after graduation?
JD: I would like to stay here. There’s nothing final about that yet, but hopefully there’s a place for me at Deadspin. If not, I’ll be writing somewhere else, again hopefully.
Bwog: In sports?
JD: Yeah, probably sports. I’m not sure I would’ve become a sports writer if a place like [Deadspin] didn’t exist. This is sort of the best place to say what you actually think about what’s going on and can tell the real story. You can say how annoying Ray Lewis is – stuff you’re not supposed to say in mainstream outlets. I like writing other things — I have a thing on Gawker today about 30 Rock – I’m an English major and I like other things, too, but I guess sports is what people think I’m good at, for now.
Bwog: Any predictions for the Super Bowl?
JD: I’ve actually been going back and forth. I think I’ve really talked myself into Joe Flacco. I hadn’t and then – this was the day before the Te’o story broke, when I was really in the weeds writing it – my editor was like, “You should really do something about football” and I was like, “I don’t want to.” I wanted to write about the [Seattle] Seahawks because I really like the Seahawks and I wrote about them a bunch but he said, ‘Don’t do that, you’ve written so much about the Seahawks.” It was agonizing so I said, “I guess I could do Joe Flacco” and he said, “Yeah do Flacco.”
I wrote something that basically said he’s not good, but he can throw the ball deep and hope his receivers catch it. All things considered, that’s not a terrible strategy because of how the risk works. Basically an interception 40 yards downfield is not a backbreaking turnover and all that. From then on I’ve sort of been thinking: “Joe Flacco, he can do it.” I’ll probably wind up taking the Ravens and the points but I’ll go back and forth on it.
Bwog: Thanks for taking the time out! We really appreciate it!
JD: Of course! You’re going to have to pull some strings to get me a senior wisdom…
Interview edited for clarity