Former Notre Dame and National Football League linebacker Manti Te’o is a victim of one of the most infamous catfishing scandals to date. This scandal is so well known, Netflix created a documentary, “Untold: The Girlfriend That Doesn’t Exist”. The documentary gives an amazing backstory on his life leading up to the scandal and the fallout it precipitated.
Te’o grew up in a Christian Polynesian household in Laie, Hawaii, where football was an important part of family tradition. He became one of the best outside linebackers in the country, and was one of the prospects for Division 1 Programs. He ultimately chose Notre Dame University, and he received an immense culture shock when he arrived. Te’o was not used to the weather, the Catholic school’s environment, or the distance from home, so he had a difficult time adapting.
Due to homesickness, Te’o’s search for companishionship or company that reminded him of his family and being in Hawaii enabled him to succumb to the vulnerability of online friendship, having received a friend request from a Polynesian girl, Lennay Kekua. He found comfort in her and felt a sense of home while he was in college. In the documentary, Te’o, Ranaiah Tuiasosopo, and others were interviewed and explained the entirety of the story. Tuiasosopo created the Facebook profile and pretended to be Lennay Kekua. Her reasoning for creating the profile was so that she could truly express herself, and be herself on an online platform. Like Te’o, she grew up in a football household, but she struggled with her identity as a transwoman. She was afraid to come out to her parents, so she kept playing football. Tuiasosopo found her sense of self through Lennay Kekua. Being part of the LGBTQ+ community and also playing football can be extremely difficult and take a toll on a player’s mental health. There is a huge stigma around being gay in such a “masculine” sport. Although her actions were not right, Tuiasosopo found her love for football through supporting Te’o during his college seasons. She would watch his games and give him advice for the next game.
Te’o felt an instant connection with her due to them both having Polynesian heritage and a love for football. He loved having “Lennay” as a support system through his up and coming fame. Throughout his time at Notre Dame, he became one of the most esteemed players at the university. He led the fighting Irish to an undefeated season his senior year, and was projected to be the number one draft pick.
During his senior year, Te’o became very popular, and his relationship with “Lennay'' grew rocky. He focused mainly on football and his new fame, which made Tuiasosopo feel left out. She devised a plan to tell Te’o that Lennay was in a car accident and is now on a ventilator. Te’o was saddened by this news, and it came shortly after his Grandmother died. In the midst of his best season ever, he lost his grandmother and would eventually lose his girlfriend. Although Lennay had passed, Tuiasosopo wanted to keep a connection with Te’o. She reached out to him as Lennay’s family members and even came to his games. News of Lennay’s death began to spread due to Te’o’s growing fame. People began to question if his relationship with her was real. A news investigation by Deadspin started to determine if he was lying about Lennay.
Deadspin published the article, and within hours the news spread nationwide. People believed Te’o to be at fault for the incident and his entire football career began to change. He was believed to be a potential first round draft pick, but he fell to the second round due to the incident. Te’o was drafted in the second round by the Los Angeles Chargers. Although his dreams of being in the NFL came true, his confidence in the game completely changed. It affected his play, relationships with his teammates, and even his family.
At Notre Dame, he dominated the field and felt like he belonged, but in the league, he lost his confidence.
When the Deadspin article was published, Tuiasosopo decided to come out to her parents and apologize to Te’o for the damage that she had caused. She was interviewed by Dr. Phil, and she confessed to being the sole person behind the scam. She decided to move back to American Samoa to get back in touch with herself and her culture. There, she discovered the LGBTQ+ community and truly embraced her identity.
Despite the hate, Te’o eventually came to terms with the reality of the situation and continued to play for his family and true supporters. He had to learn to forgive himself and Tuiasosopo for the scam. Te’o continued to play for the Chargers for three years, was traded to the New Orleans Saints, and now plays for the Chicago Bears. He has a wife, a daughter, and is making sure that his story is heard nationwide.
Situations like this arise very frequently for black and brown pro-athletes. Social Media has been a contributing factor in these cases, because it has made it easier for people to catfish and connect with others. Pro-athletes, especially men of color, have been highly coveted, and many women have used social media to trap or date these athletes. For example, Brittney Renner dated NBA player, PJ Washington and within months of them dating she was pregnant. There have been many stipulations about her due to the quick timeline and the 6 year age gap. Khloe Kardashian and Tristan Thompson are another example of this. Their relationship has been rocky since the beginning. Khloe became pregnant with their daughter, True in the midst of the many cheating allegations he had. Despite the confirmation of the cheating, Khloe stayed with him and had another child. With this being said, in this day and age it is more acceptable to be associated with pro-athletes or men with higher status no matter what the consequences are. In all of these situations, the women have sacrificed their happiness or parts of their life for the status of being associated with these men.