Scott D. Pierce: Utah filmmaker reveals what really happened when Manti Te’o was catfished

Latter-day Saint football star was the victim, but he became a punchline.

(Netflix) Manti Te'o was an all-American linebacker at Notre Dame when he was catfished.

If, like me, you thought you knew the story of football star Manti Te’o getting catfished and you didn’t feel sorry for him — and maybe felt somewhat amused by what happened — you were, like me, completely wrong.

“I think a lot of people feel the same way,” said Emmy-winning filmmaker Tony Vainuku, a Utahn whose new documentary about Te’o and the person who catfished him — “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” – starts streaming Wednesday on Netflix. “It was like … how could this happen?

Looking back at it a decade later, what happened was appalling. Te’o, who was clearly a victim in the ensuing scandal, was mercilessly mocked. The scandal ruined the end of his college career at Notre Dame, and cost him millions of dollars when he slid from the first to the second round of the NFL draft. And it has haunted him ever since. (Te’o’s NFL career with the Chargers, Saints and Bears was hampered by a series of injuries.)

And all this happened to a nice young man — an upstanding Latter-day Saint who lives his religion — who deserved much better than he got. That’s the clear conclusion you draw from the documentary.

And it also seems that maybe growing up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and living somewhat of a sheltered life might have made Te’o more susceptible to what happened to him. Vainuku wouldn’t go quite that far, but he did say, “I honestly feel that Manti couldn’t be more perfectly set up for that to happen to. I mean, he is the definition of faith, family and football. And it really ultimately is a story about human connection that ends with heartbreak and betrayal.”

What happened?

In the fall of 2012, Te’o was atop the college football world. An all-American linebacker at Notre Dame and a Heisman hopeful, he led the Fighting Irish to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the national championship game. He also made headlines when he said in interviews his grandmother and his girlfriend died on the same day — but, it turned out, the girlfriend never existed. He was being catfished by Ronaiah “Naya” Tuiasosopo, who invented Lennay Kekua, with whom Te’o had a long-distance relationship.

When Deadspinbroke that story, Te’o’s sterling reputation was tarnished, despite the fact that he was the victim.

Much of the coverage seemed to treat this as somewhat of a joke, despite the damage it wreaked on Te’o’s life. The documentary includes appalling clips of sportscasters and alleged journalists speculating that all of this was a lie Teo concocted to cover up him being gay. Which he is not. It’s only a decade ago, but the homophobia is hideous — people lose their jobs for that kind of behavior today.

“It was important for us to really show what they did to him at the time,” Vainuku said.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tony Vainuku, who won an Emmy for "In Football We Trust," is one of the directors of "The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist."

Getting to Manti Te’o

Producers Chapman and Maclain Way (“Wild Wild Country”) and co-director Ryan Duffy had secured the participation of Tuiasosopo, the catfisher who now identifies as a transgender woman and goes by both Ronaiah and Naya, but they couldn’t get to Te’o. Which is why they brought Vainuku in as director and producer.

“Manti just didn’t trust the media,” Vainuku said. “Didn’t trust any of it for good reason, right?”

But Te’o was aware of Vainuku’s Emmy-winning “In Football We Trust,” a made-in-Utah documentary about the strong tie between Polynesians and football. Three days after Vainuku contacted him, they were talking on Zoom. A couple of months later, Te’o agreed to be interviewed on camera, talking extensively about a subject he’s refused to discuss for most of the past decade.

“What was important for him was a film team and a director that weren’t going to exploit him and were going to allow him to tell his full truth,” Vainuku said. “Leave no stone unturned. Put it all out there. Leave it all out there once and for all. All the answers for his fans and have both sides of it.”

(Netflix) Manti Te'o in "Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist."

It isn’t just his side of the story, however. Vainuku also interviewed Tuiasosopo, who provides her perspective.

“It was important for [Te’o] that Naya was in it as well. He wasn’t going to hide away from that,” Vainuku said.

And, while Tuiasosopo is the one who instigated what turned into a scandal, she, too, was caught up in something that became more than she ever imagined it would be. She’s allowed to tell her part of the story, and she admits her own wrongdoing. But, like Te’o, she never imagined that what she was doing would set off a scandal that grew exponentially larger than either of them ever imagined.

“I went into the situation with no judgment on it and just being completely open to what she was ready to share,” Vainuku said. “I definitely don’t condone what Naya did, but this film definitely provides context and the complexity of the situation at the time.”

(Netflix) Manti Te'o in "Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist."

Catfishing in 2010

The phenomenon of catfishing — pretending to be someone you’re not on the internet to attract another person — was not unheard of in 2012. The “Catfish” movie premiered at Sundance in 2010, and the “Catfish” TV series premiered on Nov. 12, 2012 — two months after Te’o was told Lennay died of leukemia.

Te’o says in “The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” that he had never even heard the term “catfishing” at the time. And Vainuku wasn’t wrong when he said that what happened to Te’o “is somewhat the first catfishing story on this high of a level ever.”

The long, convoluted tale is told in the documentary, but Te’o suspected the stories he was being told by “Lennay” and others weren’t true. Notre Dame hired investigators, who confirmed that Te’o was being deceived. But, it turned out, he hadn’t been altogether truthful himself — he told his parents and others he’d met the fictional young woman — and he was too embarrassed to come clean about the catfishing before Deadspin broke the story that his dead girlfriend never existed in January 2013.

Former Deadspin staffers appear in the documentary to say that Teo was never the subject of their coverage — they wanted to expose media outlets who ran with the story without checking it out. According to Vainuku, Teo thought the Deadspin reporters “were the bad guys. And after he watched the film, he was, like, ‘Wow I have a whole new respect for Deadspin. And it gave me closure with them as well, because I didn’t know this for the whole time that they were just trying to tell the truth.’”

That speaks well of Te’o. I am less forgiving of Deadlspins reporting. Giving the outlet the benefit of the doubt, it was — at best — naive not to see how this was going to blow back on Te’o. They reported there was a strong chance Te’o was in on the hoax — which was not true — and the justifications they offer in the documentary don’t entirely ring true.

(Netflix) Manti Te'o in "Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist."

Good for Te’o

According to Vainuku, Te’o is extremely pleased with the way the documentary turned out. Which is not surprising — he comes across as a great guy whose life was adversely affected despite the fact that he was, for the most part, an innocent victim.

Yes, he told a few lies. He was an embarrassed 22-year-old trying to cover up that he’d been deceived. But Te’o did not deserve the huge wave of negative publicity that adversely affected his career and his life.

“I feel like the film definitely gives you exactly the type of person he is,” Vainuku said. “He is faith, family and football. He was very, very disciplined with everything as his father tried to teach about football, his culture, his religion.”

In one segment, Teo talks about how he ended up at Notre Dame instead of the school he’d long had his eye on — Southern Cal. (He also considered BYU, and there are some clips of the Cougars playing Notre Dame in the documentary.) Te’o says he made the decision to head to South Bend, Indiana, after he received a message from God.

Yes, the Latter-day Saint thinks God told him to go to a Catholic school. Which is, yes, sort of amusing — but it’s also an example of the devout young man Te’o was. An example of “how faith-driven he was and how much it did come down to prayer. … I think he still is a very, very devout Christian and faithful. Really, really depends on prayer. Much like a lot of a lot of Polynesians. Not all, but, a lot of Polynesians culturally have that same devout, spiritual side.”

(Netflix) Naya Tuiasosopo in "Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist."

And the fictional Lennay was someone he could relate to, because she was purportedly from a similar background.

“She was from his culture. He just had this innocent trust,” Vainuku said. “Maybe a little naive, obviously, but with good intentions. He just wanted to do the right thing. You can’t blame a person for trusting as much as you can and giving the person the benefit of the doubt.”

Vainuku had never met Te’o before he began work on “The Girlfriend That Didn’t Exist,” but “I’m really close with him now, and he’s a wonderful guy,” the director said. “The story is somewhat tragic, but I think by him retelling it, it’s a story of redemption in a lot of ways for him.”

“Untold” Vol. 2

The second season of “Untold” begins Wednesday, when both parts of “The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” start streaming on Netflix. The other three new installments in the series are:

• “The Rise and Fall of AND1″ (Aug. 24) is the rags-to-riches tale of a scrappy company that transformed streetball into a phenomenon.

• “Operation Flagrant Foul” (Aug. 31) recounts the 2007 scandal in which an NBA ref was charged with betting on games he officiated.

• “Race of the Century” (Sept. 7) is the story of how upstart Australians won the America’s Cup in 1983 after the New York Yacht Club had held it for 132 years.

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