Obsessed: The Manti Te’o Documentary Reveals That Nobody Handled It Well

Welcome to OBSESSED, in which I provide you a reading list / media consumption list that speaks to my primary hobby: doing obsessive amounts of research into a singular topic or story for no reason. This week I watched the Manti Te’o Documentary on Netflix and I bet you did too!


I read the Deadspin story about Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o that dropped in January 2013 — we all did, it was everywhere. The story they’d set out to debunk was a tragic, heart-tugging and widely-reported tale about Te’o’s personal setbacks during his final season at Notre Dame: a few days before his team was set to battle Michigan State, Te’o got the crushing news that his grandmother had died. Then, six hours later, he learned his girlfriend, Lennay Kakua, had also died. She’d been in a car accident some months back, which had led to a diagnosis of leukemia. Lennay and Te’o had spent months on the phone every night while she hung on to life support. Despite his heartbreak, he played football and lead Notre Dame to glory, which is, we all know, ultimately the most important thing that a human male can do in this fine country.

But Lennay Kakua never existed. Manti had been catfished. How that story broke and what its aftermath entailed is the topic of a new Netflix documentary, Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, and it manages to paint an entirely new picture of the whole saga, despite the fact that Manti’s story has never changed. It’s just that nobody was really listening the first time around.

Behind Lennay’s profile  — and the extensive network of family members surrounding her, many of whom also spoke out loud to Manti — was Naya Tuiasosopo, who has since come out as a trans woman but at that time was presenting as male by a different name. The photo she used for Lennay was stolen from a random girl who’d never met Manti but had attended high school with Naya. The documentary is anchored in its intereviews with Manti and with Naya.

The public had a hard time believing that Manti wasn’t “in on it,” although Naya insisted that he was not. Manti was mocked and bullied and memed and loathed around the world, and the blowback impacted his position in that year’s NFL draft. But as the new Netflix documentary makes clear, Manti did absolutely nothing wrong! He was just an innocent, naive kid from an incredibly sheltered Mormon background who approaches the world like it’s just chock-full of good, worthwhile people. The snowy Catholic campus of Notre Dame was a huge culture shock for Manti, who often felt isolated surrounded by all those white people in Indiana and missed Hawa’ii. Lennay, who shared his Samoan heritage and allegedly shared a few friends in common with Manti, was a valuable connection to somebody who understood his culture and shared its accordant shorthand. Te’o was young and naive and simply lonely.


The Manti Te’o Deadspin Story and Its Aftermath

The Deadspin story that busted Lennay’s story wide open was allegedly crafted as a takedown of mainstream sports media moreso than of Manti or Naya — its writers marvel at different newspapers publishing totally different timelines around Manti and Lennay’s relationship and point out that the Associated Press wrote that her funeral took place in a non-existent city in California. Not a single outlet had attempted to verify that someone by her name had ever attended Stanford, been in a car accident, gotten born, gotten sick, or died.

I remember reading it and I know that my determination after reading it was that Manti was gay and he’d just been lying to cover up his relationship with his boyfriend and I mostly just felt bad for him! I’d never heard of Manti or his tragic losses prior to reading the Deadspin story, but I knew football and Mormonism were both homophobic and caring about homophobia in sports and religion is literally my job, so that (untrue!) narrative was what resonated for me. But I wouldn’t have had any trouble believing that Manti had simply been truly catfished — I know first-hand how much easier it is to believe a liar than most people think it is. But that wasn’t presented as an option by Deadspin. They’d made up their mind and told the story accordingly.

That’s what stands out most from re-reading it after seeing the documentary: Deadspin’s presumption that Manti was in on the hoax, something they declare with reasonable certainty. Not because they have any evidence he was also lying, but because that’s what seemed logical to them at the time. They write off a catalogue of claims as lies even though we learned in the documentary that many of those incidents were not lies — like that Manti’s father had spoken to Lennay on the day she was released from the hospital. He had! She just wasn’t who she’d told him she was. While Manti did in fact lie about having met her in person, it’s completely understandable — he would’ve seemed crazy or weird to admit he was in a relationship with a girl he’d never met.

More Manti Te’o stories from that time period are really shocking to watch after seeing the documentary:

The New York Times: ESPN, apparently, had been working on its own story, and they were debating whether or not to publish it without getting an interview with Te’o when Deadpsin beat them to the punch.

YouTube: watch Naya on Dr. Phil. Naya speaks about being sexually abused as a child in this interview and says her desire to create a new identity came from that traumatic experience. This was not addressed in the Netflix documentary.

YouTube: Te’o on Katie Couric. There’s a faint buzz throughout this video which I eventually got used to but man, this poor kid did not do a great job here! I felt really bad for him in this!


The Trouble With Naya Tuiasosopo

naya speaking in the netflix documentary

“I still feel horrible and part of me wishes that all of it could be undone,” Naya explains near the documentary’s end. “But then also another part of me was like, I learned so much about who I am today and, you know, who I want to become because of the lessons I learned through the life of Lennay.”

This sat roughly with me. So did a lot of what Naya said in the documentary. I’m not sure what the filmmakers were going for here with her portrayal — if they were just attempting to tell her story neutrally and she dug her own grave, or if there were places where they could’ve challenged her and chose not to. In an interview with CNN, series creator Maclain Way speaks about Naya affectionately and with care.

Her story felt wrapped up in a bow at the end — that this was all okay because that was her gender journey, which’s a very troubling framework. Sure, it pushes back on tropes around trans women and deceptiveness to present her story with compassion, but the proper way to push back in this case is to make it clear that there is a line to be drawn here, eventually, and that regardless of her understandable desire to create this fake identity and pursue relationships under its guise, her emotional manipulation of Te’o and her transness are unrelated.

People trying to sort out their gender identity and sexuality are perhaps more motivated than others to experiment with fake identities online in various contexts (whomst among us!), which can often be harmless and sometimes says more about the transphobic and/or homophobic environment the subject is pushing back against than it does about the subject themselves. Considering the football-first, heavily masculinized, super Christian family that Naya was a part of, I have compassion for her desire to catfish in the first place (and I would’ve appreciated the film taking more time to explain how deeply traumatic Evangelical Christianity can be for LGBTQ+ kids like Naya). It’s not okay that she did that, but it’s not necessarily pathological either. “I knew what was right and wrong, but I was too far in love with being looked at in this way,” she says. “It was completely selfish, but it was what made me happy. It was what I wanted to be a reality.”

But she took it further than just using someone else’s pictures to have a romantic relationship. At a base level, the fake romantic relationship she created was possessive and emotionally abusive. But beyond that: she faked cancer. She faked a car accident. She faked death. She said, of Manti’s grief and pain following the fake death, that Manti “did not handle it well.” DID NOT HANDLE IT WELL. That reminded me of my liar friend, too, who was always so shocked by our emotional reaction to the traumas she invented, as if she was unable to comprehend how other humans processed grief and loss. The way Naya told her story felt familiar, too, explaining with such detachment truly bananas behaviors like corresponding as multiple characters or deciding to fake her own resurrection. She says it hurt to hear Manti grieve over the phone, but seemed to like that hurt well enough to call Manti’s family herself to tell them that Lennay had died on the same day that Manti’s grandmother had just died, instead of letting Manti handle it on his own. She is somehow angry at Manti for releasing her voice mails to the press. She seems to really want credit for all the ways she helped Manti with his career.

Of course Naya couldn’t predict that Lennay’s death would become a national news story that would end up costing Manti millions of dollars, and it’s not her fault that the NFL is so deeply homophobic and the media so relentlessly cruel that Manti’s draft desirability plummeted after the “hoax” was revealed. But she did set that chain of events in motion and she didn’t have to. She didn’t have to fake Lennay’s cancer and then kill Lennay. She could’ve just come clean, or broken up with him, or ghosted. All of those things would’ve been hurtful, but not quite as destructive.

Ultimately, what was really clear to me from his story is that if you trust in God, you can get through anything, like the entire world bullying you about an emotionally manipulated trauma you’d just endured. This man was just like “I had to trust in God’s plan” and I am like, okay I think I need to get right with God??!!? (I know he trusts in God in a Mormon way and I’m not into that specifically, but you know, my own God within the context of my own religion.) I mean read this interview! This man is a saint? Anyhow, he got married in 2020 and they seem really cute and happy now!


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Riese

Riese is the 40-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in California. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2975 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. I always felt bad for Manti and thought this is what happened. No one wants to admit they bought into a fantasy for complex reasons and loved someone they never met. I also think it reveals the complicated reason why some people “catfish”- including trying on an identity that might be MORE real than their actual self. I think the loss of anonymity within the internet also means the loss of something magical that existed for a while for some people- the chance to try on identities in secret that often gave them the courage to be a more authentic version of themselves in real life. In this case a real person got hurt

  2. I was in my first year at ND when this all came out, and I’m glad that Manti is getting some redemption. We were all having hushed conversations about the story in the dining halls on the day that the Deadspin article dropped. I felt bad for Naya in some regards, but truly could not believe how she framed her actions! A riveting documentary all around.

    • I’m glad you’ve touched up Naya’s complete and utterly detachment of the severity of her decisions. Her journey with gender identity, I do not feel, is at all a reason for her choices to *kill* the character she made. It reminds me of the things I would do as teen. I would break up with a boy for the attention and, I’m ashamed to say, relish in the hurt. The only true way for her to do that in that long distance relationship was to hold on to Manti through the subsidiary characters she made. It’s totally messed up. I would feel more forgiving about it but listening to her description of the timeline I don’t fully believe she recognises this!

  3. This doc, while nominally trans-positive (what was that disclaimer for anyway?), was still edited in ways that positioned Naya to come across as lacking enough remorse, which is harmful given the transphobic climate and her relative position compared to Manti. For example, the section at the end about her finding her community, talking about the lessons and moving forward, clip of her dancing, was edited directly before the close-up of Manti talking about the heartbreak and ongoing impacts on him. While both of those were essential, by positioning them next to each other what else was the viewer supposed to come away with but the reactions that you and seemingly most others have? Naya did a great job advocating for herself, but it shouldn’t have been solely on her to carry the weight of owning the terrible choices she made, and her reality as a Samoan trans girl, as well as educating on the trans experience all at the same time. Obviously that balance would be hard to strike at the best of times, and definitely so with the editing choices made. Although I believe this wasn’t Manti’s intention, the doc still came across as an attempt to rebuild the fallen ‘all-American’ golden boy that the media had built him up to be before they tore him down, with some nods to complexity and nuance by highlighting the trans-ness of the villain. It’s disappointing to see a queer publication also fall for the same tropes.
    Why was there no one to explain or even allow Naya to elaborate on just why the release of those voicemails was so mortifying? That Dr Phil clip was awful, and to play it without context was disgusting. Having a trans lens on this, or even someone from Naya’s community then or now would have been helpful to provide context and truly tell this in a way that’s responsible. For sure what Naya did was awful and the lengths she went to, and in my viewing she owned it and its impacts and had meaningfully integrated it with compassion for her own experience. Both her and Manti displayed an emotional maturity not done justice to by the spectacle of this story, then or now. How many of us did awful and naiive shit in the name of teen love, add to that being closeted in the environment she was in, and the pressure cooker that he was in. The only difference here is because of who Manti was made out to be (talk about the exploitation of pro athletes, esp racialized ones), and the moment in his career, how the media sensationalized it, this achieved proportions that most early 2000’s online love stories never did.
    Just like the Deadspin guys didn’t give a fuck about the impacts of their story on the lives of those involved, this doc, by irresponsibly and inadequately nodding to the trans context of this story, has set it up to get the reception it does, which seems clear from what I’ve seen so far. Nothing has changed in the last 10 yrs of American media, we still love a redemption arc, still love dividing the world into bad guys and good guys, still hate racialized trans women.
    I truly wish the best for both Manti and Naya, and hope Naya has the support she’ll need to face the backlash from this. As well as racialized trans women everywhere, esp the imperfect fucked up ones who’ve done some dumb shit. We all deserve better.

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