'Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist' Effectively Unpacks One Of College Football's Craziest Scandals [Review]

Manti Te’o deserves an apology. Te’o, a Notre Dame great and one of the preeminent Hawaiian football players of his generation, had everything going for him to be another NFL success story from the Aloha State. Though, it all changed the second he got a friend request from a Stanford student named Lennay Kekua, one that would forever alter his career path and sadly define what should’ve been the most exciting part of his life.

As many know, Lennay Kekua wasn’t a real person, rather a catfishing attempt by Naya Tuiasosopo (then known as Ronaiah, who hadn’t yet identified as a transgender woman during the incident). Te’o fell in love with Kekua virtually and in staged phone calls, with Tuiasosopo pretending to be Kekua in every facet of the catfishing. When Tuiasosopo decided to end the ruse, she killed off the fake persona via disease during Te’o’s senior year, which sparked Te’o to share his trauma in losing his girlfriend and inspire the country in the proces. Te’o was a deeply public figure entangled in a deeply confusing hoax, one that would get uncovered by Deadspin in early 2013 and unleash a frenzied media saga that mocked, blamed and created conspiracy theories about Te’o and his alleged involvement in the scandal (an idea that never held water).

It was a historic controversy in the earlier days of widespread social media use, a time where the truth (Te’o innocently got catfished by someone who pretended to be his girlfriend) was indeed stranger than fiction (many of the theories that followed Deadspin’s report). The scandal likely caused Te’o to drop out of the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft and, according to Te’o, haunted him in the first years of his NFL career, one that many thought would last longer than it did. After nearly a decade of being the butt of the joke, Te’o is able to reclaim the narrative with “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” Netflix’s latest sports documentary that tries to explain Te’o’s side of the story and the damage the hoax caused him. It’s an enveloping watch, one that recounts the events for those unfamiliar and adds new, vital context for those who followed it at every step. It also, seemingly a focus of the “Untold” series, peels back the media coverage and the salacious nature in which it flocked to Te’o’s story, a reaction that should be instructive for the future.

Rather than just vilify Tuiasosopo for her role in tricking Te’o into a false relationship, the documentary does a good job of trying to at least give her a chance to explain her part in why she did what she did. The documentary has plenty of interview footage with both Te’o and Tuiasosopo, and tries to just present what happened rather than add in voiceover narration that tries to sway you either way. Misrepresenting your identity to trick someone into a relationship with a false person is, obviously, a serious breach of trust and consent, but you at least understand by watching the two-part doc series why Tuiasosopo would engage in such a strange effort. For Te’o, you gain a deeper empathy for what he went through, and better reckon with how he could fall down such a deep rabbit hole with someone he never met in person. Other talking heads try to explain Notre Dame and the media’s perspectives, with both main Deadspin reporters involved in the investigative piece getting their own chance to explain their role in breaking the story.

While Tuiasosopo will always have to shoulder the bulk of the blame for how this bizarre incident happened, “Untold” does its work to try and show how various media outlets became attracted to the strangeness of the story without really trying to vet Te’o’s role in what happened. He wound up in the end just being an innocent victim to a catfishing rather than some sort of active participant, but the media coverage in retrospect came off as smug and desperate to cling to whatever tabloid-ready headlines could come from the incident. Empathy is free, and this “Untold” saga tries to advocate for it when covering strange stories involving people. This documentary gives much more of it to Te’o (and honestly Tuiasosopo) had ever gotten during the heyday of it all.

If you’re a football fan and remember the Te’o saga vividly, this “Untold” is a hard one to miss. It humanizes Te’o more than anything has in the last decade, turning him from a clown to be made fun of on “Saturday Night Live” to someone incredibly hurt by something that was beyond his understanding. Interestingly, this “Untold” installment reinforces the themes of Jordan Peele‘s “Nope” about our dangerous societal hunger for spectacle. Rather than pull a Jupe and try to harness his trauma for all the wrong reasons, Te’o takes the high road and instead focuses on healing, forgiveness and edification. If anything, the Netflix project gives the former Notre Dame star a chance to share his story on a wide platform, which is justification enough for the project. It helps a lot that it’s such a poignant work, one that should highlight the mystery of those early social media days and the importance for us to always try and ask questions and act with empathy before jumping to conclusions. Te’o deserved better, but at least now, he gets a chance to change the narrative. [A-]