Sources tell me that ESPN suits in Bristol at the “top of the food chain” were made aware of the Manti Te’o hoax/fake girlfriend story on January 6th – the day before the BCS Title game between Notre Dame and Alabama. The game was televised on ESPN.
That’s one day after Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick met with Te’o and his family in Miami to reveal the contents of an investigation about who was behind the hoax that created Lennay Kekua.
When I reached out to ESPN for comment about being made aware of the Te’o story on Jan. 6th, I was told they only found out about it on Jan. 10th. That is when they claim they began to investigate the story.
[UPDATE: ESPN has passed along this firm denial of know about the story on Jan. 6th. "Your story is wrong. This unnamed source who is feeding you false information is completely uninformed and has unfortunately misled you, resulting in an untrue story for your readers. As we've said from the start, our news staff began exploring this story on January 10, three days AFTER the BCS Championship."]
Sources say after ESPN received the initial tip on Jan. 6th, they began to investigate the hoax angle, but some in Bristol wondered if it would be in their best interest to air anything they had in advance of the much-anticipated Title game.
A source says ESPN was unable to verify some information prior to the game, but continued researching the hoax in the days after the game. [This morning on his ESPN radio show, Colin Cowherd said he was told of the Manti Te'o hoax story Monday.]
Ultimately, verification was the big hang up, a source says. My guess, and this is pure speculation, is that ESPN is withholding revealing whatever it has while lobbying Te’o for the coveted “first interview.” Part of ESPN’s early reporting could be seen last night, when they surprisingly buried these bizarre quotes from an NFL player about Kekua.
One prevailing theory (read: speculation) connecting Te’o and ESPN: He decided after the title game that the best way to get this story out was through a media outlet, and that outlet was ESPN. Why didn’t it happen? Maybe Te’o's family (and his agent at CAA) thought this story would never come out (or he was still too embarrassed about it), even though AD Jack Swarbrick said a few times during his press conference he was certain the story would hit the media.
Yahoo’s Pat Forde has shed some light on the process:
Some administrators were pressing for a unilateral public disclosure by the school, while others wanted to let Te’o himself make the stunning news public, the source said. Notre Dame officials were in contact with Te’o's agent, Tom Condon of Creative Artists Agency, and were told the Heisman Trophy runner-up planned to release his version of events Monday. The decision was made to wait and let Te’o and CAA control the message.
So it seems Notre Dame wanted Te’o to get out in front of this to do some damage control, but the linebacker’s camp bricked, and Deadspin beat them to the punch.