If there’s one thing the American media loves more than a story, it’s a scandal. Few have been bigger or more bizarre than the tale of Manti Te’o and his fake dead girlfriend. Even a decade later, it’s hard to wrap your head around how college football’s brightest star fell victim to a hoax. Te’o might have been one of the first high-profile casualties of catfishing at a time when many of us didn’t know what the term meant.
This story badly needed more context and an update. The latest release in Netflix’s Untold sports documentary series, The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, provides both.
The two-part documentary, directed by Ryan Duffy and Tony Vainuku, examines sports celebrity, sexual identity, and how mainstream journalists failed to do their job properly. It’s astonishing how all this came together in a perfect storm. A phony tragedy that had real-life consequences.
Most of us arrogantly believe that we would never be fooled. Certainly not the way Te’o was duped. However, all it takes are the right set of circumstances and the right person. We all want to have faith in the people we care about. In The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, Te’o speaks passionately about his faith, and he played for the most famous faith-based college in America.
Te’o should be remembered as the 2012 Heisman Trophy runner-up for the last Notre Dame football team to reach the National Championship Game. Unfortunately, if you play word association and mention “Manti Te’o,” that’s not what first comes to mind.
Credit Te’o for being in this documentary. No one wants to recall their worst moments. He does so with dignity and raw emotion.
The first part of The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist details Te’o’s role in Notre Dame’s return to national prominence. How he not only became the face of the Fighting Irish but of college football. It also looks at how Lennay Kekua first contacted Te’o through Facebook.
This documentary doesn’t work without the participation of Ronaiah “Naya” Tuiasosopo, who now identifies as a transgender woman. This is a critical detail. Viewed through the prism of someone from a famous football family like the Tuiasosopos who’s struggling with their sexual identity, this catfishing story looks quite different.
This is not an excuse, but rather a plausible explanation. If they met today instead of in the 2010s, perhaps Tuiasosopo wouldn’t have felt the need to create a fake persona. Or, at the very least, the deception may not have escalated. Society has evolved to be more sensitive to the LGBT+ community. Tuiasosopo comes across as remorseful and gives a believable account of why she did what she did.
The second part of The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist is the most fascinating. That’s where the documentary holds up a mirror to the established media. Journalists may not like what they see. So many wrote about Te’o dedicating his senior season to the memory of his grandmother and girlfriend who both died on the same day.
On the surface, it was a heartbreaking story that every news outlet wanted to tell. The tale only grew as Notre Dame finished the regular season 12-0 to earn a spot in the BCS National Championship Game. The documentary reveals how, leading up to the Heisman Trophy ceremony, Te’o discovered that his girlfriend may not have passed away in a car accident. But there was more to come.
Deadspin did the journalism that outlets like the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN should have done. It published an exhaustive account of how Lennay Kekua didn’t exist. This shocking revelation turned the Manti Te’o sports story into a news story. And in an ironic twist, Te’o went from famous to infamous even though he was the victim.
Major media outlets recklessly speculated about Te’o’s sexuality, wondering aloud if he was a part of the hoax. The scandal likely cost him millions of dollars; he slid to the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, selected by the San Diego Chargers. Why did that happen? Perhaps some teams made those same false assumptions. His pro career was mediocre, playing in 62 games over seven seasons before retiring after the 2020 season.
Te’o could be bitter. He has been a punchline, a meme, a cautionary tale. But it seems like he has done a lot of personal growth. Ultimately, The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist shows us the power and freedom of forgiveness.
[Photo Credit: Netflix]