Close to a decade after a catfishing incident, former NFL player Manti Te'o opens up : Consider This from NPR – NPR

HEATHER COX: Manti, this must be a bittersweet night emotionally, losing your grandmother and your girlfriend on Tuesday. How would you describe your emotions on the field tonight?
MANTI TE’O: I mean, they’re with me. You know, so, I mean, I couldn’t do without them. I couldn’t do it without the support of my family and my girlfriend’s family and…
That’s Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o being interviewed by Heather Cox on ESPN back in 2012. His team had just beaten Michigan State, and it was an emotional day for him because of the win, sure, but also because he had recently been told that both his grandmother and his girlfriend had died within hours of each other.
TE’O: Why me? Why them? Why all in one day? This is 6 hours ago. I just like, grandma passed away, and you take, you know, the love of my life?
MARTIN: Manti Te’o dedicated his season to them and turned his grief and trauma into determination. He seemed unstoppable on the field, and Notre Dame went on to a winning season. The public loved him, and the sports media could not praise him enough.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: 2012 could be rightly remembered as the year of Manti.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There will never be another player who makes a bigger impact on Notre Dame than Manti Te’o.
MARTIN: It was the perfect American football hero’s story until it wasn’t.
TIM BURKE: Through the sports news media, there were millions and millions of people who knew that there was a Notre Dame football player whose grandmother and girlfriend had died the same night and that he dedicated his season to them. One problem – his girlfriend did not exist.
MARTIN: That’s Tim Burke, the former Deadspin reporter who broke the news of an elaborate hoax aimed at the star linebacker. He’s interviewed in a new documentary from Netflix that takes a new look at that unforgettable story of the star baller who thought he was in love with a girl who turned out to be the invention of a troubled young man who went on to transition to a transgender woman. It is a complex, compelling tale, but at the time, it was the first many had heard of catfishing, meaning somebody using a false identity to deceive others online. Both Manti Te’o and the inventor of the hoax, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, would go on to pay a price. But at the time, the heavier price seemed to be paid by Te’o, who went from golden boy of Notre Dame football to the target of ridicule and attack.
TE’O: And I’m kind of just in the middle of this storm and trying to figure out, OK, like, what’s happening? Why is this happening? Like, you know, what does this mean? What does this look like?
MARTIN: CONSIDER THIS – the media storm that erupted around Manti Te’o humiliated him and likely damaged his career prospects. But after 10 years, he’s finally telling his story. That’s coming up. From NPR, I’m Michel Martin. It is Saturday, August 20.
JULIE DICARO: I remember posting on Twitter, everybody stop what you’re doing and go read this story about Manti Te’o. And at the time, it was so hard to wrap your mind around how this could have happened.
MARTIN: Julie DiCaro is senior writer and editor at Deadspin, the sports blog that broke the news in 2013 about Tito’s nonexistent girlfriend. DiCaro didn’t work there at the time, and she says, looking back, it’s still shocking to see how much damage the catfishing did to Te’o’s career.
DICARO: You know, he missed out on guaranteed money by going in the second round of the NFL draft. You know, he – his career in the NFL hasn’t been anything like what people have thought it would be.
MARTIN: And DiCaro says the way Te’o was treated by the media in a situation where he was actually the victim – while not surprising, it’s still hard to understand.
DICARO: It felt like a lot of people just sort of assumed the worst, which is that he was somehow involved in this.
REY JUNCO: This is why the hypocritical nature of the media bugged me so much about this case, because they’re shaming someone for trusting someone because they were in love and wanting to be in love. Wanting to relate to other people is a basic human need.
MARTIN: Rey Junco is a psychologist, social media researcher and former fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. And even in 2022, he says, catfishing is more common than we think.
JUNCO: I understand the motivation to look for love, the motivation to, you know, at the beginning of any relationship, online or not, we ignore yellow flags. We ignore red flags. This is not something unique to Manti. This is all humans.
MARTIN: Junco says one of the reasons why catfishers can take advantage of people is that, in our society, it’s not talked about. The stakes are just too high.
JUNCO: I think a lot of it stays hidden because people are so ashamed of being catfished. They feel like their friends are going to think they’re stupid or that they don’t have good common sense or that they’re desperate or things like that.
MARTIN: Junco says, even if you’re not familiar with the term catfishing, online relationship scams have been around since the beginning of the internet.
JUNCO: I mean, as long as there’s been, you know, digital means of communications, there’s been digital deception. It’s been an inherent part of technologies – of at least online technologies since they came to the fore.
MARTIN: And he says Manti Te’o is a perfect example of why, even today, few people talk about being the victim of catfishing.
JUNCO: I mean, he got raked across the coals. And, I mean, even, you know, even to the point of people saying, oh, you know, maybe he was in on it and he was doing it, you know, to win the Heisman and, you know, get better placement in the draft and stuff like that. And it definitely seems like that’s not the case. So I think you’d probably still see the same kind of thing. I would hope the media would do a little bit more fact-checking first.
MARTIN: Coming up, what does it take to forgive, find peace and move on from a life-changing scandal?
TE’O: There are people that had supported me all those years. And they just supported me because they loved me. And there was no backing to it. It was just loyalty. And I wanted to – I thought to myself, man, what a great opportunity that this could be, where I’m at a place now where I’m not ashamed of anything. I’m at peace with everything, so I can tell it.
MARTIN: Nearly 10 years since he lived through the catfishing scandal, Manti Te’o decided to tell his side of the story from beginning to end for the documentary. When I spoke with him recently, he made it clear he wanted to go beyond just focusing on how the scandal hurt him, although it clearly did hurt him, but also on how he overcame it and how he moved toward acceptance, peace and forgiveness. And he says one good thing about telling his story is the opportunity to reach others who have had similar difficult experiences.
TE’O: You don’t know what you don’t know. You know what I mean? Like, I always told some of my teammates, I would ask a lot of them, you know, when they would ask me questions, I was like, how do you know about catfishing? They said, oh, you. I said, how do you know about catfishing? And he would say, oh, you. I said, guess how I know about catfishing? Me. I’m the one – I found out from catfishing because of my experience. Now I hope that, you know, that brings awareness to that side, you know, because there are a lot of people in the past 48 hours that have reached out that have been, you know, totally hurt by individuals who have catfished them. And it’s definitely something that, you know, for all – for everybody around the world, just be careful, you know. Just be careful.
MARTIN: The documentary makes a point about the traditional media, and I just wanted to give you a chance to say what you have to say about that.
TE’O: What do you mean by traditional media?
MARTIN: Well, what we traditionally consider the sports media like TV and radio broadcasting, newspapers, sportswriters, like, you know, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, the traditional sports reporters. Let me just say a couple this way – some of my colleagues who have pointed out that they’re kind of ashamed at the way the media behaved here, they feel like the reporters didn’t do their due diligence upfront and then kind of made you the spectacle when it all came to light. And a lot of people feel that that was really unfair, especially for somebody who as young as you were and also as young as, frankly, many professional athletes are.
TE’O: Yeah.
MARTIN: And I just wondered if you had thoughts about how you were treated by the media.
TE’O: I really appreciate that question, because I think the media – and this is for every media, not just, you know, the media we’re talking about – I think everybody who has the opportunity to reach an audience – and media can be, obviously, reporters and all of that stuff, but media can also be these influencers, right? Like, I’m really talking to everybody. We all have the opportunity, through our words, to create something, to have an impact on somebody or for somebody. And so with that comes so much responsibility, and I don’t think sometimes that some media understand the type of impact that they can have on somebody.
MARTIN: I don’t know how you received what it is that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was saying in the documentary. She’s saying that she was going through something. She did not understand where kind of she was in her own life, that she was – had this challenge within her that she did not have words for and that this was kind of her way of living her truth, even though she didn’t really understand it. And she knows that she caused you harm, and she’s sorry. Do you accept that?
TE’O: Honestly, I never heard a sorry. You know, I never heard an apology, but honestly, it doesn’t matter because the forgiveness was given without the request. I knew that in order for me to continue to be the man who I wanted to be, forgiveness was something that I had to exercise, no matter how hard it was at that time. And I started to realize the power of forgiveness. You start to take back the power in your life. Whenever you’re angry with somebody, whenever there’s that hate that you carry around, that’s not a – you’re giving away your peace to somebody else. And I needed that. I wanted that. And so I knew I had to let it go. And so I forgave so that I could move on with my life.
MARTIN: Did it follow you, though? Did it follow you? Did you feel it followed you?
TE’O: Oh, yeah. I felt it followed me. And even if it didn’t follow me, in my mind, it followed me. And that’s the dangerous part, and I tell people all the time the challenge with being in that kind of space is the world becomes really small. And what I mean by that is you think that everybody knows that everywhere you walk, everywhere that you visit in public, that when you – somebody stares at you, they’re staring at you because they know. When somebody double-looks at you, they’re double-looking at you because they know. And you put everybody under this assumption when that’s not necessarily true. So I needed to get out of that, and so that’s why – again, that’s why I knew it all started and ended with me. If I can get out of this funk and get out of this dark place, it didn’t matter at that time whether they knew or whether they followed it or not. Like, I needed to move past it.
MARTIN: Well, congratulations. I mean, you sound great.
TE’O: Thank you.
MARTIN: You sound like you’re in a really good place. Now, I wasn’t stalking you, but I did see some beautiful wedding pictures on Instagram, just FYI…
TE’O: Thank you.
MARTIN: …Of you and your lovely wife, and you have a new baby now. And would – forgive me for asking. Would you let her – would you encourage her to be a professional athlete, knowing all that you know now?
TE’O: All of my kids are going to play sports because the beauty in sport is it teaches you a lot about life, and it teaches you qualities and helps you learn important things that will be successful and help you be successful in life. So they’ll all play sports, no matter what it is. I don’t care what it is, to be honest. Now, if we have a little boy on the way, if my son wants to play football, one, he is not going to play linebacker because I don’t want him to live in his daddy’s shadow. I want him to do something – play another position. But he’s going to be the best at it. Going through what I went through, I mean, everybody remembers the bad, right? But there’s also a lot of great stuff.
MARTIN: Like what?
TE’O: Well, one, my career at Notre Dame was amazing, not only on the field, but off the field. It was amazing. And then what the documentary doesn’t cover is after I left the Chargers. When I left the Chargers and I went to the Saints and I was able to heal, I played my best football with the Saints. And then I was able to carry on that confidence, and I started to become the Manti that I always knew. And people started to see like, oh, that’s the Manti from Notre Dame. You know, there were a lot of great things about my career. And, you know, even though, like, this big thing – this catfishing incident happened and it has overshadowed everything else, man, like, majority of my career was just – it was amazing.
MARTIN: That was Manti Te’o. He played for eight seasons in the NFL. He’s interviewed in the new documentary “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.” It’s on Netflix. It’s CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I’m Michel Martin.
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