Beyond the glitz and glam of celebrity athletics lies some of the most dramatic sagas in recent memory. Untold, a series of documentaries produced by Netflix, unveils some of the most fascinating behind-the-scenes stories of modern sports. One documentary of the series focuses on the tale of football player Manti Te’o. Manti, who rose to fame as one of Notre Dame’s all-time greatest linebackers, was the victim of a catfishing scam in 2012, before the term existed in popular culture. Anyone who pays attention to college football can recall the incredible senior season he had amidst the heartbreak of losing his beloved grandmother and girlfriend on the same day. It was one of the great college football inspirational stories worthy of the Fighting Irish. The problem was that the girlfriend was not who she said she was.
Without giving the entire story, suffice it to say that a young man named Ronaiah struggled with his own sexuality and used a fake Facebook account and female voice to make Manti believe he was a woman named Lennay Kekua. Rather than simply breaking off the odd multi-year relationship, Ronaiah decided to fake Lennay’s death over the phone with Manti on the same day as the death of his grandmother. For the full story, I highly recommend watching the two-part series. It is fascinating from beginning to end.
Other writers have already commented on the strange way this documentary explains the phenomenon of transgenderism and its association with the “digital self.” One of the great dangers of social media is the culture of self-invention and chameleon-like capacity to be whoever you want. Add to that the overwhelming cultural propaganda to define your meaning and purpose regardless of reality, and you have a perfect atmosphere for this level of deceit.
Watching the series, it is clear that Ronaiah had some severe issues he needed to work through. In one sense, it is clear that this person was going through a turbulent mental struggle during the catfishing scam without an outlet, so a certain level of compassion is warranted. However, in the most evident sense of justice, what this person did to Manti is indefensible and deserves to be written among the most horrific schemes in modern history. Regardless of how one feels, using another person for mental, physical, or emotional gain is simply disgusting, which is why, during the final minutes of the second episode, Manti’s monologue displays a man of the highest character and caliber. He says, “I want everybody to know that if Ronaiah ever watches this, that I forgive him. And I hope and pray that him and his family’s cool, because that’s all I can wish for him.”
The series causes the viewer to ride an emotional roller coaster. One of the aspects of the film was the need for a constant check on mental health, especially for athletes. In athletics, weakness is frowned upon and mental health, in particular, is considered abstract nonsense. While many things have changed since Manti’s upbringing—such as top-tier MMA fighter Paddy Pimbett’s speech encouraging men struggling to talk to someone—it was embarrassing or emasculating to express such hardship during that time. Sport is an excellent place for people to work through many of these difficulties, but as we see in the case of Ronaiah, the family unit and a solid support system are of great necessity. One of the most emotional lines of the film is when Manti discusses his need for therapy several years after the trauma of the embarrassment and harassment when a therapist asks him whether he has forgiven himself. Manti responded, “Forgiven myself for what?” In a real-life Good Will Hunting moment, the therapist replies, “Somebody like you, who’s always been so confident, who’s never questioned anything that he’s done, and all his success being based on him trusting in himself . . . deep down inside, you’re questioning yourself. You have to forgive that kid. What happened to you is not your fault.” Though not complicit in the actions of the scam, Manti had to recognize his moment of blindness in an age of unreality. What he thought was real turned out to be a traumatizing experience. As the film conveys, forgiving oneself, regardless of fault, is the first step to real healing.
Though not the purpose of the documentary, the display of the beauty of Polynesian culture is something that cannot be missed. When listening to Manti’s parents, there is a clear sense of tradition, honor culture, and familial love. From the strong family and social ties, growing up in Laie, Hawaii, means a sense of roots and purpose. Throughout his college career, he would quote his parents and speak of the Laie way of life as his way of seeing the world—doing what is right, seeking worth more than success, and making Christian morals his guideposts. In a time when most cities in America are becoming eerily indistinguishable, watching these families with a durable cultural expression was refreshing and enviable.
As mentioned, the most impressive segment of the documentary came at the end of the second episode during Manti’s final monologue and closing. In his last words, you still see a man who hopes to help others and be someone who inspires people to be who God created them to be. After so many years of mockery, one of the biggest struggles has been Manti’s ability to accept that people still love him. After recalling all the times that people gave fake affection for the purpose of making fun of him, he reminds himself daily that some people still love him, and he wants to express that love back to everyone every day. “I have to take a second to be like, ‘They actually love me, man. They love you. They don’t want to make fun of you, bro. Treat them nice in a world that just spit on you . . . I’ll take all this crap. I’ll take all the jokes. I’ll take all the memes so that I can be an inspiration to one who needs me to be.” Words of a true man of character, honor, and humility.
In this documentary, Netflix has accomplished a story of heartache, glory, and redemption. I’ve watched every episode in the series, all of which are excellent, but Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist stands out among the rest. Honestly, I wish we had more athletes who showed such character and humility in the face of heartache.