Going into his senior year at Notre Dame, Manti Te’o was a surefire first-round draft pick with a presumably long NFL career ahead of him. In sports, we all love our stories of tired, but determined warriors pulling themselves up from the pits of grief. Every feel-good Cinderella story shows us it’s possible for us. But how does a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy and an engine for his team’s national championship run become one of the most hated athletes, with the likes of Tiger Woods (and his cheating scandal) and Lance Armstrong (and his doping revelations)?
Netflix’s two-part documentary “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” looks at the hoax’s complexities that turned Te’o life upside down. The term catfish was in its early digestion phase into the pop culture psyche with the film by the same name in 2010 — not so much the eight-season MTV mainstay it’s known to be. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace were beginning to reshape human interaction and intimacy. We were all coming to terms that someone on the other side of the computer screen could be an entirely different person than their profile said.
On Sept. 12th, 2012, Te’o found out his grandmother and thought-to-be girlfriend Lennay Kekua passed away on the same day. With all that information, he played in the next game against Michigan St. What would be an ongoing theme throughout the documentary is Te’o’s selflessness in inspiring others. You can almost see how that kindness can be preyed upon — for a man who initially engaged in chat conversations with a woman as a friendship grew into something more.
The million-dollar question is, how could someone fall in love with someone they have never met in person? There’s no way a connection could be genuine, right? What is explored is how Te’o was wrapped up in an elaborate and sinister long-term lie, which included fake family members, voices, and little sisters used as stand-ins. So, the question should be less centered on how naïve one can be to believe what an online profile tells them. (Te’o states he confirmed Lennay’s profile with family members and murals). We should ask how one person could take advantage of the good-hearted nature of someone they don’t know.
Most of the runtime ties the two people at the center of the maelstrom together — Te’o and Naya Tuiasosopo, who has recently transitioned into a transgender woman. Te’o and Tuiasosopo grew up in similar backgrounds centered on faith, family, and football — each of which manifested differently. Te’o and his father, Brian, elected to forge a life of discipline that led him to be one of the top linebackers in the country before he chose Notre Dame. Tuiasosopo was struggling with an identity crisis that led her to create this profile, which became an outlet to live the life she wanted. What is troubling is Naya’s realization that what she was doing was wrong, but she continued to do it anyway. She describes having interactions with guys and suddenly cutting communication off when they wanted to meet.
However, with Te’o, the hoax became more devious when a cancer scare, car accident, death, and sudden resurrection came into play. This was all happening as Te’o became the poster child of not only sports media, but mainstream media. He was the embodiment of Notre Dame legends like Rudy, but the awards and the NFL were on the horizon. As Te’o’s stock rose, Tuiasosopo felt she was losing control as the talks became less frequent. We hear stories of religious families and those in the LGBTQ+ community directly coming into conflict. While you can sympathize with Tuiasosopo’s struggle, the documentary displays someone who still hasn’t grasped the gravity of what they have done.
Another aspect The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist tackles is the media’s role in the building and (eventually) breaking down the legend of Manti Te’o. NFL reporter Alex Flanagan spoke about Te’o not being aware that could take place. Sure, but what was a 21-year-old kid from a small town in Hawaii supposed to expect? He said all the right things and was the consummate football player and person, embodying the “Notre Dame sense of values.” To find the details of the story of Lennay, former Deadspin writers Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey sifted through the romanticism to find discrepancies from single reverse google searches and timelines of reported deaths not adding up in major outlets.
Was everybody not looking for the obvious because the feel-good story is better to tell? Possibly. In the aftermath, media outlets ruthlessly went after Te’o guessing he helped orchestrate the hoax — to where it tanked his draft stock and robbed him of the fire he played with on Saturday afternoons and evenings. This isn’t even considering the homophobic framing of coverage, wondering what his sexual orientation was. The two-part documentary shows the unfortunate cost of preferring salaciousness over seeking nuance.
Te’o optimistic, see-the-best-in-everyone nature is still intact, which should make us feel triumphant at the end — but it doesn’t. Te’o tearfully says he will keep moving forward for the one person who still looks up to him, despite the many who laugh at him. That’s not how storybook endings are supposed to turn out. One of the hardest things to know other than the what-could-have-been element with Manti Te’o’s story is that we love the fall as much as we do the rise. Teo’s story made us feel a lot of things, but then he had to pay.
Photo Credit: Netflix