Tackling the Te’o Documentary


(NOTE: There will be spoilers regarding the Manti Te’o documentary currently on Netflix. If you have not watched it, thanks for the click. Go watch the doc, then come back, click again, and read the column.)

Being a college football fan, I have been asked three questions quite a bit lately.

1. Why are you going to a North Texas-UTEP game? (Because I said I would in a column a few months ago.)

2. Have you watched the documentary on Manti Te’o? (Duh.)

The third question I’ll bring up later. But first, some background about me.

For those who may not know, I was born and raised about 25 miles east of South Bend, Indiana. In the same city that gave the world former ND Quarterback and NFL Bust Rick Mirer for the fellow Olds. As a kid, Notre Dame football was everything. But always being the one to zig when everyone else zagged, my fandom veered elsewhere. (Florida St. to be specific.)

Fast forward to adulthood. My first job out of college was for the local newspaper, where I was a reporter and photographer from 2004-2012. Even though I worked mostly on the general news side, since we were a small paper with limited staff I was able to chip in on the Sports side, which included covering Notre Dame games in a pinch. While that didn’t make me any more of a fan, it at least force me into an unbiased appreciation for the university.

During that time, I spent many Saturdays on Notre Dame campus. Some weekends I was on the field shooting the game. Some weekends I was in the press box. And some weekends I was out tailgating with my friends.

In 2011, I was offered the opportunity to be a stringer for the Associated Press. I would sit in the press box for home games, then go to postgame press conferences. I’ve heard Jim Harbaugh speak (when he was Stanford’s coach), Rich Rodriguez speak (when he was Michigan’s coach) and talked to a few players that would end up in the NFL. One of those players was actually Manti Te’o. No I don’t remember what I asked him. He presumably had a good game so something pertaining to that I’m sure. I left that job in the Summer of 2012, right before Notre Dame’s magical season.

While that looks good on a LinkedIn profile, I don’t tell you all that as some sort of flex. The point is that I have experience in the Notre Dame University bubble. So when what happened in January 2013 took place, I was 100% invested.

I remember exactly where I was when I heard about it. I was meeting a buddy for wings at a local establishment. He got there first, so when I got to the table he greeted me not with a “Sup” but by pointing to the TVs showing both local and national news, each with the same top story. “Holy Crap, are you seeing this? Manti Te’o’s girlfriend was made up!”

From that point on, I was obsessed with the story. Not just from a “LOL, look at that Notre Dame player being made to look like a fool” perspective. But from all the layers to it.

You all know the details. Te’o had a girlfriend known to him as Lennay Kekua. With her living in California and him living in Indiana, their relationship was strictly online. They had never met but had forged a relationship through text and pictures. Towards the end of the 2012 season, one which Notre Dame finished undefeated and Te’o was invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony, it came out that Manti’s grandmother and girlfriend died on the same day. Te’o became a sympathetic figure throughout college football leading all the way to the National Championship game. It was the face of college football playing for a purpose bigger than himself, how could he not?

Then it came out that Kekua was who everyone thought, Te’o included. It was a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo pretending to be her.

The story was first released by Deadspin, who at the time prided themselves in being the “anti-ESPN”. As someone who had worked at a newspaper, I wasn’t the biggest fan of “gotcha journalism” so they didn’t do much for me. They weren’t the most reputable resource at the time, so there was definitely an element of “is this real” for almost 24 hours. Time passed, and it was confirmed to in fact be true. And Ta’o made the daytime television circuit. He was on Dr. Phil as the poster child for “catfishing”. He also was on the Katie Couric Show answering the “hard hitting” question…”Are you gay?”

On a national level, Te’o was being painted anywhere from a naïve fool to a calculated, despicable person, to a closet homosexual. But locally, in South Bend, he was (for the most part) supported, protected, loved.

Te’o’s pro career was very uneventful. Obviously the whole situation impacted his draft stock, and he played for the Chargers for a few years before getting released. He was picked up by the Saints, then ultimately faded away a couple years ago.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago. A co-worker showed me the promo for this documentary. Of course I was interested in it. I watched it a couple days after it dropped. I loved it. Then the more I thought about it I realized, I’m kinda in it.

For starters, they show a lot of highlights from his first game at Notre Dame, a home game against Nevada. I was there tailgating, and after several beers, was convinced to go to the game. There was an aerial shot of a full Notre Dame Stadium, so I’m probably shown in the form of a dot.

I’m the babyfaced goober on the left.

The main hangup people seemed to be having was “how could he have been in a relationship when someone he had never met”? But then I realize…I met my husband online. We did the long distance thing for a while. Our relationship was initially born from a profile photo and some text, no different then Te’o’s. And that’s pretty common nowadays.

Then there is Tuiasosopo.

If you have seen the documentary, Ronaiah (now a transgender woman that goes by Naya) was definitely going through some things. And what (at the time) he was feeling was not as easy to process as it may be now. So he hid who he was. I’m not condoning what he did, but as a gay man, I get it.

It’s easy to watch the whole situation 10 years after the fact and wonder how things could have played out they way they did. There’s probably blame to be assessed if you choose to do so, but they documentary does a good job of presenting both sides. Did Manti make some questionable decisions? Sure. But I think you would be hard pressed to think that Manti had anything to do with it.

So that third question I mentioned at the beginning. “Is it good?” Yeah, I think it is good, but I have personal feelings about Notre Dame football, the role of media and privacy in people’s lives. So I’ll put it out to those who have seen it. Is it good? I’d love to hear what you guys thought about it. Tweet me (@justincripe) or (@walkonredshirts).


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