updated 01/18/2013 AT 1:05 PM ET
•originally published 01/18/2013 AT 1:30 PM ET
The executive producer of a show that focuses on people who have been “catfished” – duped by someone romantically through a false online identity – says he thinks it’s possible that Notre Dame star Manti Te’o truly was in love, or desperately wanted to be, with a fake Internet partner.
Ariel Schulman, who produces the MTV program Catfish: The TV Show with his brother Nev Schulman, said on Good Morning America Friday that he feels for Te’o, who is under intense scrutiny for touting a relationship with a woman who may have never existed.
“I stand by the guy. I think he’s dealing with more emotionally than anyone gives him credit for. Whether she existed or not, those are real feelings,” Schulman said. “He had his heart broken.”
The football star’s tragic storyline – which is now in question – served as poignant backdrop for last fall’s college football season as word of the linebacker’s girlfriend, who had leukemia and died, drew support from fans as Notre Dame went undefeated and its gridiron star grieved off the field.
“I think when you want something bad enough, and in his case a connection with someone, you are willing to ignore a lot of red flags and create a scenario that allows you to continue believing,” Schulman said in defense of Te’o. “My gut is that there is a lonely person behind it all who didn’t expect it to go that far and who was looking to connect with someone. That person was Manti. It just started off as two people looking for love.”
The primary question about Te’o’s role in the complex hoax is whether he was the unwitting victim of a scam or was aware that the woman did not really exist. The football star released a statement saying he was “embarrassed” by the situation but has not spoken publicly.
Schulman said his brother Nev, who was similarly duped online, has reached out to Te’o but has not heard back yet. Nev’s investigation has revealed that the Heisman runner-up may not have been the only person who fell for the online ruse from someone posing as “Lennay Kekua.”
“It’s bigger than just Manti,” Schulman said. “There were a lot of other people she was corresponding with, before and even during his relationship with her.”
Notre Dame officials have thus far stood by Te’o and his story, saying they fully support him as an investigation at the school continues.