As a closeted sophomore in college, it was deeply unsettling to watch the Manti Te’o story unfold. When Deadspin published the bombshell scoop outing his dead girlfriend as a hoax, accusations began to swirl about the star Notre Dame linebacker’s sexuality.
Was Te’o involved in an elaborate ploy to cover up that he’s gay?
On this week’s edition of “The Sports Kiki” podcast, I revisit the crazy sports saga in the wake of the new Netflix special, “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.” In it, Te’o speaks at length publicly for the first time about his online relationship with the fictional Lennay Kekua, and how he fell for the elaborate scheme.
The documentary also features the person behind Kekua, Naya Tuiasosopo, a now-transgender woman who says she created Kekua to escape from her tortured reality.
One of the big takeaways from the doc is how the media and public turned Te’o, the victim, into a laughingstock. He was the subject of memes, jokes and putdowns. People couldn’t comprehend how he could be so naive.
As a result, Te’o, a Heisman finalist, slipped to the second round in the 2013 NFL Draft — costing him millions of dollars. His NFL career ended after eight unremarkable seasons.
Te’o’s sexuality was a legitimate question at the time. He was a standout linebacker at Notre Dame, an overtly conservative institution, and came from a religious Polynesian family. At that point, there had never been an out gay player in the NFL.
There were few out gay male pro athletes in general.
But rather than tackle the macro issue, such as what the possibility of Te’o going to such extreme lengths to cover his sexuality says about football culture, the mainstream media’s coverage devolved into a game of finger pointing.
The gay question was treated as an accusation.
“Are you gay?,” Katie Couric asked Te’o point blank on her talk show.
“Far from it. Faaaaaaaaar from it,” a clearly uncomfortable Te’o shot back.
During one clip played in the doc, ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio tells radio host Dan Patrick that “teams want to know whether Manti Te’o is gay. They just want to know.”
The statement implies that being gay would’ve been another strike against him.
Culture has changed a lot over the last decade. Today, it’s unlikely the discourse about Te’o’s sexuality would be so cavalier.
But at the time, coverage of the story made it seem as if being gay was something to be ashamed of. At least, that’s how I read it, as a gay 20-year-old looking to make it in sports myself.
4:05: Jon Gruden speaks publicly about his anti-gay emails for the first time
10:25: Tim Hardaway addresses his homophobic past
13:45: Te’o discussion
Click here to check out this episode of our Outsports podcast, “The Sports Kiki.” You can also subscribe to the show on Apple’s Podcast page as well as on Google Podcasts, and wherever you’ll find Outsports podcasts.