Two sports scandals dominated the American news cycle at the beginning of 2013: the disgrace of Lance Armstrong and the disgrace of college football player Manti Te’o. But if Armstrong’s delayed admission that he doped to win all seven of his Tour de France titles told a story about the rotten heart of American success, four decades after Watergate, in a traditional way, the Te’ o affair warned about. the dangers of the internet at a time when the techno-optimism was still in its infancy – before bot accounts, misinformation and online harassment became part of everyday life. However, according to a new two-part documentary about Te’o’s championship debut on Netflix last Tuesday, the scandal must be understood as more than a simple catfishing story that is often presented as it is. As outlined in The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, the romantic hoax at the heart of Te’o’s national humiliation touched on much deeper and more interesting questions of identity, faith and belonging, particularly for minorities, in America in the early 21st century.
Nearly a decade after the story became meme-fodder, the basic description of the Te’o scandal is still relatively familiar: Te’o, a Samoan-Hawaiian star linebacker at Notre Dame, claimed his grandmother and girlfriend died on the horizon. the same day in December 2012. National sympathy propelled Te’o to a new high on the field, and Notre Dame finished the regular season undefeated. Te’o seemed destined to be a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. However, there was just one problem, and in January 2013 that problem made international news: Te’o’s girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, true. In fact, it was Kekua, who purported to be a student at Stanford and with whom Te’o had pursued a one-on-one online relationship, who created Facebook for a young man – like Te’o, of Samoan ancestry – from Seattle.
For Te’o, the transformation was swift and brutal. Literally overnight, he went from an athletic stud who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated to a global joke.
As the story spread across the internet, Te’o was painted as both a fool (Saturday Night Live showed Te’o telling a newscaster about the moment he found out Lennay was dead: “A few months from then she called me and said, ‘Hey I’ve got bad news – I’m dead,’ and I said, ‘Oh no, do you need a ride to the funeral?'”), and, maybe, liar: many philosophers have speculated that Te’o may have been involved in the whole scheme as a way to gain national attention. Along with the bleak homophobia was the arrogance with which Te’o’s trauma was covered, which was dissected and cited by (sportswriter Mike Florio told MSNBC’s The Ed Show, “Teams want to know if Manti Te’o is gay or not. They just want me to know.”), and one news report threw in some racism for good measure, describing the whole affair as “a weird Polynesian plot to shame” Te oh.
The Girl Who Wasn’t There combs through this history while showing Te’o, today, as he has always been: a decent, hard-working young man with a deep Mormon faith who was perhaps a little too naive for his age. of internet weaponry. One scene shows Te’o explaining how he turned to a lawyer uncle for guidance after Lonnay, who was allegedly dead, called him in late December 2012 to announce that she was still alive. “My uncle immediately said, ‘I think you’ve been catfished.’ And that was the first time someone had ever brought up the term ‘catfish.’ I didn’t know what catfishing was. Even when he explained what it was, I couldn’t even understand what that meant.”
The hoaxer, Naya Tuiasosopo, who has since come out as a trans woman and uses her / her pronouns, invented Lennay and gave her a Facebook profile with photos stolen from a former classmate and a whole constellation of extended family members and friends. Te’o was first contacted through this Facebook account; it was only thanks to Tuiasosopo’s genius for imitating the female voice that a relationship could be sustained through months of texting and phone calls.
A note accompanying the beginning of each episode of The Girlfriend Who Not Exist, which includes extensive new footage of interviews with both Te’o and Tuiasosopo, states that “at the time of filming, the subjects were not aware of this. [Tuiasosopo] she identifies as a transgender woman.” The result is that most of the participants in the Tuiasosopo documentary are dead without foundation; this seems especially unfortunate because what makes the series most interesting is the insight it gives into Tuiasosopo’s state of mind as the perpetrator of the hoax. What emerges from that portrait is the deep confusion Tuiasosopo felt about her own identity at the time she created Lennay.
“Lennay’s profile wasn’t necessarily a way out but a way to something else,” she says. “At that time, I definitely knew there was something inside of me that wanted to scream out and be like, ‘Why am I different?’ There were a few encounters online where he was like, ‘This guy is cute. We’ll see where this goes.’ I knew what was right and wrong, but I was too much in love to look this way. It was completely selfish, but it was what made me happy. It was what I wanted to be a reality.”
The glue that kept Te’o and Lennay/Naya together was not the internet as such – only a tool in the story – as their shared background. Although Lennay was fictional, Tuaisosopo imbued the character with her own personality – her own interests, her own tastes in music, and most significantly, her own ethnicity. Both Te’o and Tuiasosopo were young people of Samoan background and of the same age – they are both in their early 30s – trying to grapple with the commitments of family and religion, two extremely important components of Samoan identity, with conflicting energy at times. life in America.
For many Samoan-Americans, football is often a connector to the larger culture around them. Tuiasosopo came from a prominent football family – her father played at USC, her uncle played for the Rams, and her cousin played for the Raiders – and she threw herself into football as a child in an effort live up to that legacy.
“But I hate football,” she says in The Girlfriend Who didn’t Exist. “I just wanted to play football out of obedience, and I wanted to make my father happy. But I fully felt the gravity of this fear. I didn’t have that courage to just be like, you know what, this is me. I truly believed in my heart, as a natural-born man, I could not be what I wanted. That’s when I decided I could have that experience in a woman’s life, even if it was fake.”
Te’o had a different experience: the love of football came naturally, and as a high school player it was clear that he was destined for great things. As their online relationship developed, Lonnay even advised Te’o on his defensive work, sending him text messages saying things like, “I suggest you manage your baby at your own pace and flow protected.” Tuiasosopo explains: “Because we were able to have those kinds of conversations, Lennay became his rock.”
But it’s their shared background and shared quest that makes Te’o and Tuiasosopo’s story, however unfortunate it ultimately turns out to be, so poignant: whether they did it in rebellion against the sport or in together with him, football became successful for both of them. a canvas on which they projected their schemes to fit in, as children of ethnic minorities, in white-dominant America.
Tuiasosopo moved back to American Samoa after the scandal broke and found support among the local LGBTQ population, which includes a large and established community of people who identify as fa’afafine, which means third gender or non-binary.
“I just had to live my life,” she says. “And I wanted to be able to live my life as trans. I still feel terrible [about the hoax], and sometimes I wish everything was undone. But then there was also another part of me because, I learned so much about who I am today and who I want to be because of the lessons I learned in Lennay’s life.”
For Te’o, the years since the public hoax may not have been so kind: he enjoyed three fairly successful seasons with the San Diego Chargers as a 2013 second-round draft pick, but his last NFL game came in 2019. minutes before his first pre-season game for the Chargers, in 2013, he felt his whole body go numb.
“The Chargers had that first three years. And it was such a contrast to the kid at Notre Dame. The football field, that was my domain, you know. Like, when I’m on the football field, I feel like nobody can beat me. And I played free, and I played fast, and I played physical. And that made me great,” he says. “I go to the NFL now, and I’m questioning everything. Every day was just trying to figure out how to get rid of this anxiety, this numbness, this tingling. I’m trying to do all these ways to reprogram myself.” Eventually he went to see a therapist who told him to forgive himself for the hoax: “What happened to you is not your fault,” the therapist told him.
Despite that progress, the documentary makes clear to Te’o, the experience remains a deep source of trauma: “I’ll take all this crap,” he says. “I’ll take all the jokes, I’ll take all the memes, so I can be the inspiration for who I want to be.” Hopefully, by venting their pain so publicly, both Te’o and Tuiasosopo will find some measure of peace in their pursuit of their young lives—and finally find their own place in the vicious turmoil of 2020s America.