Manti Te’o hoax: The catfishing scandal that shook college sports

·3-min read
 (Courtesy of Netflix)
(Courtesy of Netflix)

In the world of American college football in 2009, closely watched freshman linkebacker Manti Te’o – a hot recruit from Hawaii whose talent was only matched by the religious values so closely aligned with those of the University of Notre Dame, for which he was playing – seemed untouchable.

A Mormon who publicly said he was fighting his best on the field to honour the deaths of his girlfriend and grandmother, the player was even a contender for the Heisman Trophy.

But – as a new Netflix documentary details – a weird and complicated catfishing scheme came to tarnish his meteoric rise.

Who is Manti Te’o?

Manti Te’o was born in 1991 in Laie, on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, to Brian and Ottilia Te’o; he said at the age of five that he wanted to be “the best” and his father took his football training seriously. Te’o was an all-star high-school linebacker and one of the hottest recruits of his age before signing with the University of Notre Dame, where he played from the 2009 to 2012 football seasons

What scandal was he embroiled in?

In 2012, Te’o allegedly lost his gifrlfriend, Lennay Kekua, along with his grandmother in the space of 24 hours before the game against Michigan State. The linebacker was quoted mourning both of their deaths and crediting them for his strength as he led the Fighting Irish to victory, his path making him a contender for the highest honour in American college football, the Heisman Trophy. Almost exactly a month after the Heisman ceremony, where votes placed him second, sports site Deadspin broke an expose claiming that Te’O’s girlfriend had never existed.

What happened?

Another male member of the Polynesian community around Te’o’s age named Ronaiah Taiusosopo was revealed to have posed as a college student named Lennay Kekua, using social media photos taken from the profile of a high school classmate. In the course of “Lennay’s” phone and online relationship with the ND star, Te’o was told she’d been in a car accident, diagnosed with leukaemia and died – before Taiusosopo then resurrected his fake persona in a phone call to the confused linebacker.

Deadspin exposed the fact Lennay had never existed in a January 2013 article. Both Te’o and his family, along with Taiusosopo, were interviewed by national media outlets following revelations about the catfishing hoax; Te’o claimed to be completely unaware that Lennay had been fictitious and Taiusosopo told Dr Phil he’d been in love with Te’o during the elaborate fraud.

What is new with this story?

A two-episode arc of Netflix series Untold, debuting on Tuesday, features decade-later interviews with the main players in the Te’o story, inc luding Taiusosopo, who is now living as a transgender woman and insists no one else was involved in the scheme. Te’o, who is now a married father, gives extensive details about the experience and says he forgives the catfisher.