ESPN aired their latest installment of Backstory this past weekend. The Tale of Te’o attempted to bring clarity and understanding to the infamous Lennay Kekua hoax. Central to the episode was Don Van Natta Jr’s quest to land interviews with both Manti Te’o and Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, as both have shunned speaking about the infamous catfishing incident in the years following cursory interviews on daytime talk shows. Van Natta had been circling these interviews as early as August 2019, when he teased the Te’o story in a future installment of Backstory.
BACKSTORY: Serena vs. The Umpire. Our premiere episode of ESPN’s new docuseries can be seen any time on the ESPN App (and coming Sept. 9 to ESPN+): https://t.co/q1gTIz6gm7
Coming this fall: The Banning of Shoeless Joe
And then: The Catfishing of Manti Te’o pic.twitter.com/ChYXGWKEHJ
— Don Van Natta Jr. (@DVNJr) August 25, 2019
Unfortunately, neither Tuiasosopo nor Te’o participated in the feature, with Tuiasosopo never calling Van Natta back and Te’o flirting with the idea for months before opting against an appearance. So while we were deprived of that crucial access and context for one of the most absurd sports media stories of all time, not all hope is lost on this front.
In the final moments of the episode, Van Natta shared that both Tuiasosopo and Te’o are participating in a documentary that is in the works.
In the ESPN article about the episode, Van Natta shares more details about the documentary project and Te’o’s reasoning for not participating in the Backstory feature.
“We settled on a date, time and venue, and, this time, there would be no ground rules. Only Te’o knows precisely when he first suspected he was hoaxed after believing he was in a relationship he insists felt very real.
I was elated after going back and forth to try to land the interview, but the feeling did not last long. In mid-November, Hiltzik told me Te’o instead had committed to doing a documentary project with The Players’ Tribune and Netflix, but there was still the possibility of a shorter, formal interview with Te’o via Zoom. (We later learned Te’o was potentially being paid for his participation and could have some control over the project.)
On Nov. 16, Te’o and I spoke again for 45 minutes. He told me he wanted to explain his reasons for backing out of our scheduled interview. “Your story is your film. It’s not mine,” Te’o said. “The other project, I would be the star of the beginning, the middle and the finish … I want to be the star.”
It would have been a huge payoff if Te’o participated in Backstory, given how well Van Natta has crafted the somewhat new ESPN show. A lot of these episodes have actually not gotten the access you would think would have been necessary to do these episodes. It’s a credit to Van Natta’s reporting and storytelling that, despite that access, Backstory has still been quite well received and has quickly become one of my most DVRed ESPN shows.
But it appears that ESPN’s loss is Netflix and The Players Tribune’s gain. I think most of us would have preferred a more neutral journalist telling this messy story, as opposed to Te’o and Tuiasosopo not only being involved, but also potentially having creative input and being compensated for their involvement. That’s not to say such an arrangement couldn’t yield a top tier sports documentary, but given the history of journalistically soft Dr. Phil and Katie Couric interviews and years of avoiding the topic, I’m not optimistic we’re going to get the payoff of an earnest documentary involving The Players Tribune and the perennially evasive Te’o. This is just the latest step in him not wanting to answer the tough questions of what really transpired in an uncontrolled setting.