Football star Manti Te’o, the object of a notorious “catfishing” incident, is emerging from the stigma of national ridicule.
The former Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman Trophy runner-up revisits the scandal that turned him into a punchline in the new season of the Netflix documentary series Untold, executive produced by Chapman and Maclain Way. Not only does Te’o tell his story, but so does Naya Tuiasosopo as she is now known, the person who ensnared Te’o in the strange tale of the “girlfriend who didn’t exist.”
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“People in the sports world have been kind of fascinated by this story,” Chapman Way tells Deadline, in what certainly qualifies as an understatement. “Neither Manti Te’o or Naya, the person behind the scandal, has talked about this really in depth before.”
The short version of the tale goes like this: Around 2009, Te’o connected online with an attractive young woman, who went by the name Lennay Kekua. They developed a friendship that blossomed into a long-distance romance while Te’o dedicated himself to playing football at the University of Notre Dame. They spoke often by phone and Manti tried to see Lennay numerous times, in person or over video, but something always came up preventing Kekua from making it happen.
The emotional bond between them became tighter after Kekua was injured in a near fatal auto accident sometime in 2012, and then, while she was being treated for her injuries, doctors diagnosed her with leukemia—or so Te’o was told. In reality, Lennay never existed; she had been invented by Naya Tuiasosopo.
“I created this whole fictional character—Lennay,” Naya says in the two-part episode Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist. “I didn’t care who I was hurting.”
Naya, like Manti, had grown up in Hawaii, both playing football as kids. Naya, who now identifies as trans, had fallen in love with Te’o, and concocted the fantasy woman in an ill-conceived attempt to get closer to the object of her affections.
“There has been catfishing content and shows and documentaries that really focus on the victim a lot, but never really focus on the person kind of behind the scandal, so to speak,” Chapman notes. “So, we reached out to Naya a couple of years ago… Getting to know her, we realized, wow, this is actually a really nuanced, fascinating story about identity and search for identity that drove her to this.”
In September 2012, Te’o’s senior season at Notre Dame, he learned his beloved grandmother had died. A few hours later he was informed that Lennay too had succumbed to illness. A devastating double blow for a young man who had already become one of the most talked about college players of the year. When the news of the deaths became public, an outpouring of sympathy swept the country.
“Lennay Kekua’s death resonated across the college football landscape—especially at Notre Dame, where the community immediately embraced her as a fallen sister,” Deadspin.com wrote in a January 2013 story. The purpose of that article was not to further the narrative of “young love marred by tragedy,” but to explode the myth. Deadspin exposed the intricate lie. The tongue-wagging started almost immediately, making a complete laughingstock of Manti Te’o.
“The tabloid headlines at the time… seemed to be of two themes,” Chapman says. “One was like, is Manti Te’o gay? That was headline after headline. Now, watching that, it just seems like, why does anyone even care? Why is that even a big thing? And then the second thing was, was Manti Te’o in on this hoax? Like, did he come up with this concept himself?”
“We were both pretty unsatisfied with the coverage at the time,” Maclain adds, “and didn’t really want those big pieces or just the general coverage, the nonstop coverage, to be the period at the end of this saga.”
Instead, the filmmakers let Te’o and Tuiasosopo speak for themselves, and they do so in remarkably candid interviews.
“It was completely selfish,” Naya says, reflecting on that time. “But it was what made me happy.”
Te’o speaks of his deeply religious upbringing as a Mormon, the pressure to pump all of his energies into football instead of pursuing a cross-country romance, the emotional support he felt from Lennay, and then after her supposed health crisis, his desire to help her in a time of great need. He’s gone down in popular culture as a world-class dupe, but after seeing Untold, many people may be touched by his heroic qualities. He endured the abuse and humiliation; he even forgave Naya for what she had done to him.
What was harder for Manti to do was forgive himself. In the film he talks about seeking therapy to make peace with all he’d gone through.
“The end of the documentary is really almost an uncut monologue from Manti Te’o on the impact that this had on his life,” Maclain says, “and how he thinks about it today.”
Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist premieres on Netflix today, with each of the next three weeks bringing a fresh episode of the series. One of the upcoming season 2 films focuses on the story of former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who was convicted of betting on games he officiated. The ex-ref does not hold back, suggesting he was a small part of a bigger NBA scandal under late commissioner David Stern. The episode dubbed Operation Flagrant Foul shows how a nascent FBI investigation into possible gambling or point shaving by other referees was aborted. Overall, it raises troubling questions about how the sports league is run and whether certain teams and star players are accorded favorable treatment (in the film, the NBA is quoted as denying these allegations).
“It’s an independent documentary,” Maclain insists. “It’s not sanctioned by the NBA. It wasn’t co-produced with the NBA and it really allows us to give a hard look at some of our characters’ allegations towards the NBA… We felt a great liberation in being able to exercise, as filmmakers, our First Amendment rights to go and ask some hard, pointed questions here.”
Another season 2 episode looks back at the greatest winning streak in the history of sports—132 years—and how a group of upstart Australians ended it. We’re talking about the America’s Cup, the world’s most competitive 12-metre yacht race, that was dominated by the New York Yacht Club from the mid-1800s until 1983.
“We didn’t know anything about the America’s Cup. But doing research, you soon realize it’s not like a battle of athleticism, but a battle of wits,” Chapman observes. “It’s our country versus your country’s greatest minds, we’re each going to build a boat and see which one goes faster. So that immediately appealed to Mac and I as a different side of athletics that can be interesting to explore.”
The filmmakers interviewed Australia’s skipper John Bertrand and his American counterpart, Dennis Conner, among other key participants in that intense maritime battle.
“It’s truly one of the greatest underdog stories in the history of sports, where this kind of ragtag crew of beer drinking Aussies decided to take on the prestigious New York Yacht Club,” Chapman says. “It’s been a while since there’s been like a classic ‘80s throwback, great, feel-good sports movie, like Rudy. That was kind of the artistic inspiration to dive in.”
As they say in the sports world, let the games begin.
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