A decade later, the real tragedy of the Manti Te’o story is how a victim was turned into the butt of a joke

The new Netflix documentary “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” tells the story of how Manti Te’o was a victim of an elaborate and cruel catfishing scandal that left him prone to a vicious social media culture, not to mention football’s (and America’s) own entrenched homophobia.

Te’o, of course, was the great Notre Dame linebacker who in 2012 dedicated his Heisman finalist season to his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who he said died of leukemia before an early season game.

The problem was simple: Kekua didn’t exist. She was a collection of stolen photos and a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who now identifies as a transgender woman named Naya. While there had been a real, and apparently deep emotional online and phone relationship (Tuiasosopo was deftly able to speak in a young woman's voice), there was no girlfriend. broke the story in January 2013, as Te’o prepared for the NFL draft, setting off a firestorm of controversy, speculation, jokes, insults, confusion and confrontation that got so ridiculous Te’o found himself sitting on a couch across from no less than Katie Couric, who tried to corner him.

“Are you gay?” Couric asked.

“Far from it,” Te’o answered. He looked humiliated just uttering the words, perhaps because a) who wouldn’t be when asked about their sexual orientation? And b) he was raised in a conservative Mormon family and his parents were present for the interview.

Then-Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o faced ridicule and scrutiny from the media after the story broke about his girlfriend who didn't exist. (Photo by Kelly Kline/Getty Images)
Then-Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o faced ridicule and scrutiny from the media after the story broke about his girlfriend who didn't exist. (Photo by Kelly Kline/Getty Images)

There is no, and never was, any indication that Te’o is or was gay. He’s 31 now, married with a child, and a couple years removed from his last snaps in the NFL.

Even back when the story first came out, there were plenty of fellow Notre Dame students willing to support his contention of being straight — which alone describes how absurd and awful this got. Moreover, private investigators hired by Notre Dame prior to the Deadspin report concluded Te'o was a victim of the hoax. The school has defended him vocally all along.

For most, the Manti Te’o story was a good and silly laugh that faded into history. For Te’o though, it was a trauma that impacted his very existence.

He went from this celebrated football star who, by all accounts, handled himself in an exemplary manner — “the perfect Notre Dame football player,” Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick still calls him — to a walking embarrassment that people pointed to, mocked and, especially within football, doubted.

He lost his confidence, his swagger, even his interest in meeting and talking with people in public.

His mistake was falling for Tuiasosopo’s tricks. Then again, Te’o was an extremely naive, trusting and sheltered young man who spent most of his time focused on football and his faith.

He has always, as the documentary shows, approached the world with wide eyes and a trusting heart. He walked through endless red flags with Tuiasosopo and believed outrageous excuses.

Other than that, he embellished some details of the relationship in media interviews, namely suggesting that he met Kekua in person when that was, obviously, impossible.

Yet those were innocent and understandable fabrications. After all, it’s hard to explain, especially back in 2012, how you could fall so hard for someone you never actually met, especially when ESPN cameras are pointed at you.

No one was harmed by any of it. It’s clear he did truly care for this person. It’s just the person wasn’t the person he was told she was. The only “scandal” was that the media, Yahoo Sports included, didn’t check for a death certificate on a feel-good story about a college football player.

The only victim in the entire saga was Manti Te’o.

Except America didn’t see him as a victim. The most damaging part of the Deadspin story wasn’t the revelation that Kekua was fake. It came when the heavily read story implied Te’o was a participant in the scam, not the target. His motivation, per Deadspin, was self-promotion.

“A friend of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo told us he was ‘80 percent sure’ that Manti Te’o was ‘in on it ’and that the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua’s death with publicity in mind,” Deadspin wrote. The website went on to cite “another relative of Ronaiah's” who “believe[d] Te'o had to know the truth.”

Citing unnamed sources in a story about fake identities and an unnamed con artist was reckless. Going with “80 percent sure” or “believe” on such a serious character charge even more so.

Yet that bit of inaccurate real-time reporting doomed Te’o because it framed the story not as some comic tale of online love gone bad, but as an extensive plot to deceive the country for selfish gains.

Te’o was now a liar and a self-promoter who thought he was smarter than everyone. As Te’o notes in the documentary, he was somehow deemed one of the three most hated athletes in America along with Tiger Woods, who was still dealing with a massive marital infidelity scandal, and Lance Armstrong, a doped-up cycling cheat.

Manti Te'o says he still faces jokes and criticism on social media nearly 10 years after he was a victim of a very public catfishing scandal. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Manti Te'o says he still faces jokes and criticism on social media nearly 10 years after he was a victim of a very public catfishing scandal. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Te’o had done nothing illegal, immoral or against any rule. He hurt absolutely no one. He was just a clueless college kid who fell for a fairly common scam. (Just week’s later, no less than Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis revealed at the Super Bowl he probably had been catfished “once or twice”, but he just laughed it off.)

No matter, Te’o was considered a scam artist. He was getting bombarded with questions about his sexuality because society assumed that hiding his true self might be a motive for a “crime” he didn’t actually commit.

America has come a long way in a decade when it comes to accepting sexuality. There is still a long way to go, but it’s almost a challenge to recall how hostile it was in January 2013, when Te’o was being accused of being gay.

Neither the NFL nor major college football had a single out player (there are but a few now, but that’s better than none). At the Super Bowl weeks later, San Francisco defensive back Chris Culliver stated he wouldn’t accept a gay teammate — “I don’t do the gay guys,” Culliver said.

Culliver had to apologize, but many in the NFL assumed he represented a huge swath, if not a majority, of players and coaches. Now Te’o was trying to get a job in that same league?

It’s how you end up getting awkwardly, painfully grilled by Katie Couric.

And it’s why the final minutes of the documentary are so powerful.

Te’o, through tears, seems to give a speech that he’s long been practicing. He forgives Tuiasosopo and then explains how he has fought, and continues to fight, past the social media mob and the constant bullying to remain a good and open person.

He knows the truth and the documentary proves the truth. Everyone and everything else, he’ll just ignore.

“I’m going to rise above no matter how hard it is for me …” Te’o said. “Treat [people] nice in a world that just spit on you. I’ll take all this crap, I’ll take all the jokes, I’ll take all the memes so I can be an inspiration to [the] one [fan] who needs me to be.

“That’s the whole reason I am doing this.”

A decade later, this is the triumph of Manti Te’o.