It its first season, Netflix's sports documentary series Untold did a good job of living up to its title, offering illuminating looks at stories that had previously not been covered covered nearly as extensively. To kick off its second season, Untold turns its eye to a story that received a ton of press coverage, the stranger-than-fiction story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and the January 2013 revelation that the girlfriend who had become such a central pillar of his media narrative did not exist.
In its initial run through the cultural churn, the Manti Te'o story was one of big schadenfreude: towards the elite athlete whose sob story about how his grandmother and girlfriend dying on the same day was too good to be true; towards the University of Notre Dame, whose success on the football field has always come with an extreme degree of piousness from fans and alumni; and towards the sports media which ran with the story instead of digging into the fraudulent truth. But in revisiting the saga almost a decade later, Untold reveals something far more human.
As told in the two-part doc directed by Ryan Duffy and Tony Vainuku, the catfishing of Manti Te'o forms the root of a story about two incredibly lonely people whose circumstances had both more and less in common than was originally surmised. Through interviews with Te'o and Naya Tuiasosopo, the person who perpetrated the hoax, we get a blow-by-blow account of how the football prodigy from Hawaii felt alone and anxious in South Bend, Indiana, before striking up a relationship with a girl on Facebook. That girl, known to him as Lennay was really Naya, then pre-transition and known as Ronaiah.
What elevated Te'o's story above the ranks of a typical catfishing story was in part sinister and in part circumstantial. On the same day that Te'o's (real) grandmother died, he got the news that his (fake) girlfriend — whom he'd never met — had lost her battle with leukemia. Because Te'o was Notre Dame's top freshman recruit and this happened just before the football season began, it quickly became easy and enthusiastic fodder for the sports media, who took this story of double tragedy and ran with it all season.
Naya's perspective on her elaborate catfishing scam is regretful, if not effusively apologetic. She tells a story that feels a bit less exotic in 2022, about feeling comfortable in an online relationship where she could pretend to be this made-up person. Duffy and Vainuku are clearly seek to humanize Naya, not necessarily exonerate her, and she's able to tell her own story in her own words. Te'o gets to tell his own story too, although he remains understandably bewildered by a lot of it.
What makes "The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist" fascinating isn't the catfishing itself. Years of TV shows, movies, and podcasts dramatizing fake online personas have made that part of the story more comprehensible, even a little familiar. Instead, what's most striking is seeing the way the media reacted to it. The doc runs through the process of how Deadspin writers Tim Burke and Jack Dickey broke the story, and then how the national media ran with it, interpreting it in whatever way suited them.
There were certainly enough unanswered questions to keep the conversation rolling. During the media's infatuation with him and his tragic story, Te'o never volunteered the fact that he'd never met Lennay in person, for reasons that could have been sinister (he wanted to maintain his good press) or benignly relatable (no one wants to be the guy with an internet girlfriend). So much of the Te'o scandal, particularly in its aftermath, amounts to rubberneckers raising an incredulous eyebrow at a football star whose romantic life was incredibly sheltered and dorky.
Part 2 of the doc gets into all of this. When Deadspin got an anonymous tip that Lennay wasn't real, they pursued it doggedly. As both Burke and Dickey attest, this was the perfect Deadspin story: a way to make ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and the rest of the credulous, cheerleading sports media look stupid while tearing down one of that year's most pious myths in sports. On top of that all, they got the story right. But they also left a lot of questions unanswered in their initial story, and the national media was all to happy to swoop in and provide their own answers. Te'o must've known. What kind of a weirdo never meets his girlfriend? He must've been in on it. He got catfished by a guy. He must be gay. Will him being gay be a distraction in the national championship game? Will it hurt his draft prospects? Ronaiah is on Dr. Phil. Is the voice on those voice mails really his? Dr. Phil better bring on a voice expert to make sure.
From their perch in 2022, Burke and Dickey both express dismay at the turns the story took once it was out of their hands. This wasn't a story about sexuality or catfishing or even Manti Te'o. This was a story about ESPN and the New York Times being embarrassingly naive. "The Deadspin mission was to make the mainstream sports media look foolish," Dickey says, and anyone who cared more about gossiping about Manti Te'o's sex life was "wrong to care about that." (Of course to not expect the national media to go all-in on a scandal about lies and sexuality when they could otherwise be talking about fact-checking practices in sports journalism is pretty naive itself.)
At the end of the day, the story of Manti Te'o, Naya Tuiasosopo, and the lie that grew too big not to leave some serious collateral damage in its path, is a lot more understandable than a lot of people were willing to allow at the time. It's a story about the lies we tell to feel alive, the lies we tell to save face, and the cost of not asking questions we don't really want the answers to. Manti Te'o's football career was obliterated. A family's real tragedy in losing a grandmother was exploited with a fake tragedy. A national media apparatus adopted the posture of schoolyard bullies rather than self-reflective journalists. That both Te'o and Tuiasosopo seemed to have arrived at a place of relative peace on the other side of this is a blessing. If we can believe what we see.
Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist premieres on Netflix Tuesday August 16, 2022.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.