A decade ago, Manti Te’o was in the headlines as a national joke and disgraced sports figure, after it was learned that his girlfriend — who had supposedly died on the same day as his grandmother and whose memory he dedicated his senior year of Notre Dame football to — had never existed. For the past couple of weeks, the former NFL linebacker’s catfishing story has been making the news again, but this time for a completely different reason. Netflix delved into the story in its documentary Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, and its reception has been massive, even eliciting some kind words from NBA star LeBron James.
Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist has resonated with a lot of people, and given new context to what the Notre Dame student-athlete went through in 2012 and 2013. Manti Te’o spoke out about the overwhelming response he’s received, thanking everyone for sharing their own stories and sending love to him and his family. It looks like even King James found time for a viewing of the doc that has remained one of Netflix’s top movies since its August 16 premiere, because on August 27, LeBron James tweeted:
Manti Te'o you good brother!! 🙏🏾✊🏾👑August 27, 2022
The two-part Untold docuseries has gotten a lot of attention from fans, as well as a large contingency of the sports world, who remember reading and talking about the Manti Te’o hoax 10 years ago. In early 2013 when Deadspin broke the story, LeBron James was en route to his second-straight NBA Championship with the Miami Heat. Even so, there’s no way he would have been able to avoid this story, as the “fake girlfriend” didn’t just transcend football; it reached audiences far outside of sports. Along with James’ uplifting message, the 18-time NBA All-Star included emojis of a salute, prayer hands, a raised fist, and a crown.
The show of support for Manti Te’o — from LeBron James and the public in general — is a big deal, considering the amount of flak he took after the scandal was exposed. The linebacker fell victim to a catfishing scam, in which he thought he was in a long-distance relationship with a woman named Lennay Kekua during his college years. Lennay was not a real person, but rather an identity made up by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.
Little was known at the time about catfishing; Nev Schulman’s documentary Catfish had just come out a few years earlier in 2010. The general consensus was that there was no way someone could be fooled into a years-long relationship with a fake person. For that reason, many people thought Manti Te’o must have been in on the scam, riding the tragic story of his girlfriend's death to becoming a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and an all-but-guaranteed first-round selection in the NFL Draft. Instead, Te’o was named one of America’s Most Disliked Athletes, and then lost millions of dollars when he fell to the second round of the draft.
Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist — and people like LeBron James spreading the word — is helping to shine the light on what really happened, and hopefully bring some healing to Manti Te’o. New episodes of Netflix’s Untold documentary film series are released each Tuesday. Be sure to also check out some of the best True Crime documentaries on Netflix right now, as well as the 2022 Netflix Movie Schedule.
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Heidi Venable is a Content Producer for CinemaBlend, a mom of two and a hard-core '90s kid. She started freelancing for CinemaBlend in 2020 and officially came on board in 2021. Her job entails writing news stories and TV reactions from some of her favorite prime-time shows like Grey's Anatomy and The Bachelor. She graduated from Louisiana Tech University with a degree in Journalism and worked in the newspaper industry for almost two decades in multiple roles including Sports Editor, Page Designer and Online Editor. Unprovoked, will quote Friends in any situation. Thrives on New Orleans Saints football, The West Wing and taco trucks.