Netflix Manti T’eo: “He’s not a liar. He’s a kid”
On August 16, 2022, Netflix aired the documentary, “Untold: The girlfriend who didn’t exist” detailing the wild story of Notre Dame football legend, Manti Te’o. After a decade, this young man’s embarrassing and life-changing saga is once again brought front and center into the public eye. It is better than I anticipated, nonetheless it remains a tragic tale. When this was at the center of the public eye, I couldn’t shake what this story said about us all.
2012-2013 was the year linebacker Manti Te’o was a Heisman runner-up. It was his golden season. Within a few months, however, everything changed: he was accused of perpetuating a massive lie. In 2012 the news was all over it, and the reaction was unrelenting. From USA Today and the New York Times to CNN and ESPN, pundits and “experts” weigh in. In a nationally televised interview with NBC’s Katie Couric, Manti’s father was asked about his son being “a liar.” Brian Te’o responded, “He’s not a liar. He’s a kid.” Brian didn’t set out to make a distinction that would embolden a national conversation. He was defending his son.
How can Netflix now, 10 years later, produce a much-hyped documentary about this deeply personal and apparently long-forgotten episode that even then was on the fringes of sport? Somehow, Manti Te’o’s story is so odd and outside-the-box that in the retelling we are once again drawn in. After all, well, “he’s a kid.” Yet at the time he was also an icon, an inspiration, and a leader. For the first several months the short answer to the story was he had lied to everybody: his family, his closest friends, how teammates, his fans. How could he have done this? What was he thinking, especially once he learned the truth?
As the story unfolded, and Manti’s parents appeared with him on the Katie Couric show, his father, Brian, said “He’s not a liar. He’s a kid.” With that single statement, Brian Te’o forced us to look more carefully at what was at stake in this hyper-inflated controversy. Was Manti to be forgiven because of his age? He was, after all, just a kid who therefore deserved a break. Or is this incident an example of a deeper, more sinister side to the Heisman finalist?
Although we know much more now than we did then, when the story itself was shot, and his lying became the byline, I couldn’t shake three thoughts, and I still cannot.
First, (as of 2013) Manti lied, pure and simple. He not only lied, he lied repeatedly, without nuance or subtlety. But does this mean he is “a liar”? Yes and no. He is a young man who repeatedly lied to cover up an embarrassing and quite public perception. What, exactly, is a liar?
This leads to the second thought, and this is important, and I have yet to hear any of the pundits making this distinction: He lied, but that doesn’t mean he is a liar. Among the most common of ways we describe behavior, good or bad, is to assign an all-inclusive and permanent label on the person behind that behavior. When they make a spectacular play, they are a great athlete. When a player skips out on a practice, they are a slacker. And when someone lies, they are a liar. The label, then, becomes the person, the thing we remember, and we respond to and talk about them accordingly.
Because of this label, the questions were relentless:
- How will he be viewed as a pro?
- Will he lose endorsement deals?
- Does this “flaw” translate to other areas of his character? Can he be trusted as a teammate?
Thirdly, Manti and Brian Te’o teach us a crucial lesson that we all know but so easily ignore when pressed by life’s circumstances: when we lie, odds are the truth will eventually come out (which it has in the documentary, albeit a decade late!). Whether it is covering up using performance-enhancing substances, cheating on a test or taxes, stealing what doesn’t belong to us, or abusing a vulnerable person, with few exceptions we will be found out. And when we are, the consequences are always worse than they would’ve been had we been honest upfront. Add to that the energy it takes to maintain a lie, and somehow deep inside we know that as hard as it is at first to admit, a hidden lie is as internally destructive as it is in public (I honestly don’t know how Lance Armstrong did it). But (given the facts we saw then) if Manti had come clean the day he found out he had been duped, it would have been painful, and yes, embarrassing. But it would have quickly faded and been remembered as a mistake by a famous but developmentally in transition college kid. The biggest issue, and what got him in this mess, is he perpetuated the lie.
It is what is hidden that ultimately reveals who we are.
Brian Te’o’s plea was straightforward. Give the kid a break. He made a mistake. Yes, he lied, but that doesn’t make him a liar. He is not necessarily worthy of a lifetime of penance over an adolescent response to a difficult situation. He should have received better counsel from his closest friends, coaches and parents. Someone should have dug into this more deeply, and more quickly, and helped Manti to come clean, take the hit and be done with it. But he didn’t, and he paid quite a price.
By the way, I agree with Brian, 100%. The attention and scrutiny of this have been almost comical if it weren’t so destructive. If Manti were your kid, what would you do? I hope I would say, “Give him a break! He’s not a liar, he’s a kid!” Then I would turn to my son and say, “Let’s talk through, step by step, what happened, and why, and then see how we could learn from this. Then let’s find the best way to stand up and tell the truth, openly and honestly, so you can learn and grow and move on with your life a better man.
And know this: I will always stand with you, because you are not a liar; you are my son, and I love and believe in you.”
Why is the truth so difficult to admit? Our kids need to know.