Why Do Sports Scandals Like the 2012 Catfishing of Manti Te’o Still Resonate?
Ten years later, the second season of Netflix's "Untold" delves into the linebacker's story in "The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist."
In the minds of most people of a certain age, the term “catfish” only referred to a bottom-dwelling fish with whiskers when an MTV show by the same name first hit the airwaves back in 2012. However, once the story of then-star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o made national news as he was in the process of being a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and preparing for the NFL Draft, non-MTV watchers across the U.S. became aware that an alternative meaning of the word (first popularized by the 2010 film of the same name) referred to luring someone into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona.
That’s exactly what happened to Te’o, who began an online romance with Stanford student Lennay Kekua that started with a Facebook friend request and ended when she died in a car accident. Not realizing Kekua never existed and that she had been created by Naya Tuiasosopo, who now self-identifies as a transgender woman, Te’o dedicated his senior season in ’12 to both his late grandmother and girlfriend. When an investigation by Deadspin exposed the hoax, Te’o became a sympathetic figure to some and a punchline to others while Tuiasosopo, who was perceived as a man at the time, evolved into a mystery.
The story of Te’o, Tuiasosopo and everything that happened 10 years ago and in the decade since is the subject of “The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” the first episode of the second season of Netflix’s Untold sports docuseries.
Developed by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, who also produced the series and directed some of the episodes, Untold returns after a critically-acclaimed first season with a second installment that delves into the backstory of the AND1 Mixtape Tour (“The Rise and Fall of AND1”), the NBA gambling scandal involving referee Tim Donaghy (“Operation Flagrant Foul”) and the underdog story of the 1983 America’s Cup (“Race of the Century”), in addition to the story of Te’o and Tuiasosopo.
“Mac and I are intrigued by subjects with fascinating lives and psychologies and figuring out what makes these people tick,” Chapman tells InsideHook. “The stores we are attracted to are stories where we are asking the subjects to reveal, some of the most painful, embarrassing or traumatizing moments of their life. We’re interested in exploring how people work their way through stuff and what’s on the other side. When I watch something, I want something raw and visceral that has a little bit of danger. These aren’t brand pieces. They’re not fluff pieces. I always have a tremendous amount of respect for our athletes who are willing to be so vulnerable on camera. It takes a lot of courage and bravery to get in front of the world and tell everyone your unfiltered story.”
Somewhat surprisingly given the sensitivity of the subject matter, Te’o — who went on to have a seven-year NFL career during stints with the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears — and Tuiasosopo were both willing to do just that.
“This event had a huge impact on both these individuals’ lives and neither of them was thrilled with how the media covered their story, ” Maclain says. “They’ve also had the benefit of 10 years of hindsight. I was struck by how young they were when they went through all this. They were pretty much kids. Naya told us just a remarkable story of the journey she’s been on it in her life, both positive and negative. She felt like she had grown a lot and was interested in telling that story. With Manti, he had just gotten married and had a child and I think he was at the point in his life where he had been thinking on and off about this story. He had new things to say and he felt like he wasn’t necessarily given a long-form platform to explain his side of the story. I think that’s why they decided to do it.”
And what makes us, as sports fans, interested in hearing Te’o and athletes like him tell their stories decades later?
“We put athletes on a pedestal and when we watch these documentaries we quickly realize, ‘Wow, this is another human being just like me and they struggle and go through the same problems I do,’” Chapman says. “Watching someone persevere through really dark, hard and difficult moments, which happens in many of our episodes, is always interesting to watch as an audience. Seeing how they work through shit in their life kind of gives us a lot of insight into our own lives. I think sports documentaries reflect back on the audience and the people that are watching them. They have the capability to reach out and draw in a wide audience from all walks of life. When it’s over, everyone can then walk away with different feelings and perceptions of the documentary they just watched.”
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