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The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist: the Manti Te’o hoax revisited with sympathy | NFL



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Two sporting scandals dominated the American information cycle initially of 2013: the disgrace of Lance Armstrong and the humiliation of school footballer Manti Te’o. But when Armstrong’s belated confession that he doped to win all seven of his Tour de France titles instructed a narrative in regards to the rotten coronary heart of American success that felt, 4 a long time after Watergate, in some way conventional, the Te’o affair appeared to supply a warning in regards to the risks of the web at a time when techno-optimism was nonetheless all the fad – earlier than bot accounts, misinformation, and on-line harassment grew to become options of on a regular basis life. In line with a new two-part documentary about Te’o’s ordeal premiering this Tuesday on Netflix, nonetheless, the scandal must be understood as greater than the easy story of catfishing it’s usually offered as. Because it’s framed in The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, the romantic hoax on the coronary heart of Te’o’s nationwide humiliation was about a lot deeper and extra attention-grabbing questions of id, religion and belonging, for minorities particularly, in early twenty first century America.

Virtually a decade after the story grew to become meme-fodder, the fundamental define of the Te’o scandal remains to be pretty frequent data: Te’o, a star Samoan-Hawaiian linebacker at Notre Dame, claimed that his grandmother and girlfriend had died on the identical day in December 2012. An outpouring of nationwide sympathy fired Te’o to new heights of excellence on the sphere, and Notre Dame completed the common season undefeated. Te’o appeared destined to change into a first-round decide within the 2013 NFL draft. There was just one drawback, although, and in January 2013 that drawback grew to become worldwide information: Te’o’s girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was not real. In reality, Kekua, who presupposed to be a pupil at Stanford and with whom Te’o had pursued a purely on-line relationship, was the Fb creation of a younger man – additionally, like Te’o, of Samoan ancestry – from Seattle.

For Te’o, the transformation was each swift and brutal. Actually in a single day, he went from an athletic pin-up who graced the duvet of Sports activities Illustrated to a world joke.

Because the story reverberated throughout the web, Teo’o was painted as each a idiot (Saturday Night Live showed Te’o telling a newscaster in regards to the second he came upon Lennay was useless: “A few months in the past she known as me up and mentioned, ‘Hey I’ve some unhealthy information – I’m useless,’ and I mentioned, ‘Oh no, do you want a journey to the funeral?’”), and, doubtlessly, a liar: many pundits speculated that Te’o might have been complicit within the scheme all alongside as a solution to acquire nationwide consideration. A grubby undertow of homophobia accompanied the salaciousness with which Te’o’s trauma was coated, dissected, and gawked at (sportswriter Mike Florio instructed MSNBC’s The Ed Present, “Groups need to know whether or not or not Manti Te’o is homosexual. They only need to know.”), whereas one information report added some racism for good measure, describing the entire affair as a “bizarre Polynesian plot to embarrass” Te’o.

The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist combs by this historical past whereas exhibiting Te’o, right now, to be what he in all probability at all times was: a basically respectable, hard-working younger man of deep Mormon religion who was maybe slightly too naive for the age of web weaponization. One scene exhibits Te’o explaining how he turned to a lawyer uncle for steering after the purportedly useless Lennay known as him in late December 2012 to announce that she was in actual fact nonetheless alive. “My uncle instantly mentioned, ‘I feel you’re getting catfished.’ And that was the primary time that any individual ever introduced up the time period ‘catfish.’ I didn’t know what catfishing was. Even when he defined what it was, I nonetheless couldn’t perceive what that even entailed.”

The hoaxer, Naya Tuiasosopo, who has since come out as a trans girl and makes use of she/her pronouns, invented Lennay and gave her a Fb profile with pictures stolen from a former highschool classmate and a complete constellation of prolonged relations and pals. It was by this Fb account that contact with Te’o was first made; it was solely because of Tuiasosopo’s genius for impersonating the feminine voice {that a} relationship was capable of be sustained by months of texting and telephone calls.

A be aware appended to the beginning of every episode of The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, which options in depth contemporary interview footage with each Te’o and Tuiasosopo, states that “on the time of filming, topics weren’t conscious that [Tuiasosopo] identifies as a transgender girl.” The result’s that almost all members within the documentary unintentionally dead-name Tuiasosopo; this appears particularly unlucky since what makes the sequence most attention-grabbing is the perception it presents into Tuiasosopo’s frame of mind because the perpetrator of the hoax. What emerges from that portrait is the deep confusion that Tuiasosopo felt about her personal id on the time she created Lennay.

“The Lennay profile was not essentially a means out however a solution to one thing else,” she says. “At the moment, I knew for positive there was one thing inside me that simply wished to scream out and be like, ‘Why am I completely different?’ There have been a few encounters on-line the place it was like, ‘This man’s cute. Let’s see the place this goes.’ I knew what was proper and incorrect, however I used to be too far in love with being checked out on this means. It was utterly egocentric, but it surely was what made me comfortable. It was what I wished to be a actuality.”

The glue that stored Te’o and Lennay/Naya collectively was not the web as such – a mere software within the story – as their shared background. Although Lennay was faux, Tuaisosopo imbued the character together with her personal character – her personal pursuits, her personal tastes in music, and most tellingly, her personal ethnicity. Each Te’o and Tuiasosopo had been younger individuals of Samoan background and related age – they’re each now of their early 30s – attempting to navigate the commitments of household and religion, two notably necessary parts of Samoan id, with the typically conflicting energies of life in America.

Manti Te'o is interviewed by Katie Couric in the days following the unravelling of the hoax in 2013
Manti Te’o is interviewed by Katie Couric within the days following the unravelling of the hoax in 2013. {Photograph}: Lorenzo Bevilaqua/AP

For a lot of Samoan-Individuals, soccer is commonly the connector to the bigger tradition round them. Tuiasosopo got here from a distinguished footballing household – her dad performed at USC, her uncle performed for the Rams, and her cousin performed for the Raiders – and he or she threw herself into soccer as a toddler in an effort to reside as much as that legacy.

“However I hate soccer,” she says in The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist. “I simply wished to play soccer out of obedience, and I wished to make my dad comfortable. However I completely felt this heaviness of concern. I didn’t have that braveness to simply be like, you understand what, that is who I’m. I really believed in my coronary heart, being natural-born male, I may by no means be who I wished. That was once I had determined that I might have the ability to have that have within the lifetime of a feminine, even when it had been faux.”

Te’o skilled issues otherwise: the love of soccer got here naturally, and as a highschool participant it was apparent he was destined for nice issues. As their on-line relationship developed, Lennay even endorsed Te’o on his defensive work, sending him textual content messages saying issues like, “I encourage you babe to handle the tempo and the movement of your protection babe.” Tuiasosopo explains: “As a result of we had been capable of have these varieties of conversations, Lennay grew to become a rock for him.”

However it’s their shared background and shared quest that makes the story of Te’o and Tuiasosopo, nonetheless unlucky its eventual unfolding, so absorbing: whether or not they did it in rise up in opposition to the game or in live performance with it, soccer grew to become for each of them the canvas on which they projected their schemes to slot in, as ethnic-minority youngsters, in white-dominated America.

Tuiasosopo moved again to American Samoa after the scandal broke and located help among the many native LGBTQ inhabitants, which incorporates a big and well-established group of people that establish as fa’afafine, meaning third gender or non-binary.

“I simply needed to begin residing my life,” she says. “And I wished to have the ability to reside my life as trans. I nonetheless really feel horrible [about the hoax], and typically I want that every thing had been undone. However then additionally one other a part of me was like, I discovered a lot about who I’m right now and who I need to change into due to the teachings I discovered by the lifetime of Lennay.”

For Te’o, the years because the hoax grew to become public have been maybe much less type: he loved three reasonably profitable seasons on the San Diego Chargers as a second-round 2013 draft decide, however his final NFL recreation got here in 2019. Within the minutes earlier than his first pre-season recreation for the Chargers, in 2013, he felt his entire physique go numb.

“The primary three years on the Chargers had been like that. And it was such an enormous distinction to that child at Notre Dame. The soccer subject, that was my area, you understand. Like, once I’m on the soccer subject, I really feel like no person can beat me. And I performed free, and I performed quick, and I performed bodily. And that was what made me nice,” he says. “Now I’m going to the NFL, and I’m questioning every thing. Every single day was simply attempting to determine the way to do away with this nervousness, this numbness, this tingling. I’m attempting to determine all these methods to reprogram myself.” Finally he went to see a therapist who instructed him to forgive himself for the hoax: “What occurred to you just isn’t your fault,” the therapist instructed him.

Regardless of that breakthrough, the documentary makes clear that for Te’o, the expertise stays a deep supply of trauma: “I’ll take all this crap,” he says. “I’ll take all of the jokes, I’ll take all of the memes, so I may be an inspiration to the one who wants me to be.” Hopefully, by ventilating their ache so publicly, each Te’o and Tuiasosopo will discover some measure of peace of their quest to restart their still-young lives – and at last discover a place of their very own within the vicious turbulence of 2020s America.