The Manti Te'o Netflix Doc is About More Than Just Catfishing

Former Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te'o has heard all of the jokes, seen all of the memes, and (likely) cried all of the tears he could over being the first (and most famous) celebrity victim of catfishing. More than nine years after Deadspin exposed the truth about Te'o dating a woman who didn't exist, the embattled and embarrassed former football prodigy is finally telling his side of the story in the new Netflix doc Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist.

A scandal doesn't captivate mainstream media for more than a news segment unless it involves someone of near-mythic levels of fame, which Te'o possessed between 2009-2012. The Netflix doc drives home the accomplishments— 2012 Heisman Award finalist, a five-star recruit, and the beloved son of Hawaii— and unwavering altruism that would ultimately lead to his downfall.

By the time he entered the 2013 NFL Draft, he already had an online relationship with his fake girlfriend Lennay Kekua, told the world she had died (after finding out she had faked that too) and had every news outlet and comedian roasting him into oblivion. His sexuality was questioned after it was revealed the person behind the Lennay character was Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, and he lost out on millions of dollars in potential NFL salary after being drafted by the San Diego Charges in the second round following his first-round projections.

The hoax is both a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of blindly dating and a look into how internet culture has evolved into social norms. In the doc, Te'o explains his gullibility was partly because "in 2009, nobody knew anything about catfishing." He contends he never heard the phrase burned into our collective online dating lexicon until Christmas 2012.

That was when his uncle told him he might be getting catfished after Te'o told his family he received a phone call from his purportedly dead girlfriend. While Catfish, a documentary about a young engaging in a fraudulent online relationship, hit theaters in September 2010, it wasn't until MTV's reality TV show Catfish: The TV Show debuted in November 2012 that the phrase was ingrained in popular culture.