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Michigan ‘catfished’ its players prior to the Te’o revelation (UPDATE)

Graham Watson
Dr. Saturday

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(USA Today Sports Images)

“Catfishing” became a household word a couple weeks ago when the nation learned of Manti Te’o and his fake/dead girlfriend, but Michigan was well ahead of the curve.

In early January, coach Brady Hoke was telling a group of the state’s high school football coaches how the university perpetrated a similar hoax on several of Michigan’s players.

[Related: Ronaiah Tuiasosopo demonstrates 'Lennay voice' for Dr. Phil]

The university hired an outside consultant to speak with the team about social media responsibility, but wanted a real-life situation on which to draw.

So he set up some of Michigan’s players.

"Before he came in, we gave him 20 Facebook accounts of guys on our team," coach Brady Hoke said earlier this month while speaking with hundreds of the state's high school football coaches. "He had his assistant -- she tried to talk to our guys. 'Hey, what are ya doin'?' Whatever it might be.

"Well, two months later we're in a team meeting and we're on the topic of what you put out there in the cyber universe ... you should have seen 115 guys when that young lady -- she was hot, now; a very, very nice looking young lady -- when she walked into that meeting room, and the guys looking at each other.

"Because some of them didn't use their heads when communicating back and forth with that young lady."

Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said Friday that some of the responses to the young lady were not “wholly appropriate.”

But what’s even more interesting about this exercise is that Michigan did it before Deadspin released its article claiming Te’o’s girlfriend – Lennay Kekua – to be a fraud.

It turned out Kekua, who supposedly died in September, was actually a hoax created by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a man who had a crush on Te’o. Tuiasosopo fabricated Kekua’s voice and ultimately killed her off in September. At the time, Te’o, who also lost his grandmother on the same day, became a polarizing figure in college football. Many outlets chronicled the pain of playing the season while dealing with such tragic events. It made him one of the most beloved and inspiring players in the game.

But it was all a lie.

[Related: Ronaiah Tuiasosopo: Manti Te'o hoax was 'never intended as a joke']

So Michigan’s “catfishing” was a good lesson at the time, but one that was driven home after Te’o was attacked my media and fans for both being gullible and for possibly being part of the hoax. Of course as the story unfolded, it looked more and more like Te’o was duped, which should put any athlete on alert when dealing with social media.

Hoke said Michigan’s players learned from the entire ordeal.

"The tweeting deal, I still don't understand, to be honest with ya, and the different things the guys will do," Hoke said. "But, my point is this: Be aware of it. Watch what your kids are doing."

**UPDATE**

Michigan is now disputing claims that it "catfished" its players back in the fall of 2011. The athletic department did hire an outside consultant, 180 Communications, to warn Michigan student-athletes about the dangers of social networking and the firm did enlist one of its attractive female employees to befriend several Michigan football players online.

However, the school said the female consultant did not have dialogue with Michigan players, which distinguishes what Michigan did with what we know as "catfishing," according to university spokesman David Ablauf.

"(She) friended them on Facebook and Twitter, and used this so they could gain access to inappropriate tweets, inappropriate posts or images that the student-athletes would have put out, for the presentation," Ablauf said. "Were there a couple of student-athletes that maybe interacted with the female? Absolutely. But there was no 'catfishing,' there was no inappropriate stuff that was done. And that's what (MLive) and everyone else is jumping to.

"(The training was) really impactful, because the student-athletes understand the importance of their personal brands and the importance of how they act, and that's really what it was. It was educational. It wasn't a catfishing expedition.

"I think there were inappropriate comments on their Facebook and Twitter, but I don't think it was toward the female. That's where people are blurring this. There were a ton of inappropriate comments, but they weren't toward the female, it was just what they were posting."

Media outlets reported Michigan's "catfishing" attempt after athletic director Dave Brandon explained Michigan's tactic while speaking at the KeyBank Global Leaders Forum in Toledo. According to the Toledo Blade, Brandon said the woman contacted several student-athletes and turned over comments that were made to her.

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