In sports, we’ve seen weasels, scoundrels and low-lifes who would lift the pennies off their dead grandma’s eyes. (Yes, we’re looking at you, Lance Armstrong.) We’ve seen Tonya Harding send a guy to whack Nancy Kerrigan’s knee. We’ve seen O.J. Simpson in prison, not for that but for going in armed to take memorabilia. And we’ve seen Michael Vick, who killed dogs who didn’t kill properly.
So where does Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o — he of the dead then she-never-existed California girlfriend — fit in this gallery of rogues? Or does he fit at all?
On Wednesday, the website Deadspin.com established Te’o’s famous dead-girlfriend story as a longtime hoax perpetrated by a Te’o acquaintance, possibly with Te’o’s cooperation. But Notre Dame’s athletic director, in a tearful prime-time news conference, said his player was the hoax’s victim. And Te’o himself, in a statement, said the hoax was “someone’s sick joke . . . painful and humiliating.”
The revelations and contradictions were more bizarre than anything that came from Armstrong’s sit-down confession with Oprah Winfrey on Thursday night.
Of course, everything the disgraced cyclist told Oprah was news only to her. The rest of us knew the lies. We knew that the bully always had one foot on a bike pedal and the other on someone’s throat. We knew about all the doping and drugs and spy-novel machinations necessary to win the Tour de France seven times.
Still, for a long time, we had bought in. We love warm-and-fuzzy sports narratives. Midway through the college football season, Sports Illustrated ran with Te’o’s story, larded with poignant memories of the girlfriend who had been in a car wreck and while hospitalized was diagnosed with leukemia and died hours after his beloved grandma passed, after which the grieving-but-undaunted Te’o made a dozen tackles against Michigan State.
This is how our heroes are molded from ordinary clay. Pete Rose came with his sandlot enthusiasm, Charlie Hustle sliding head-first into our hearts. Tiger Woods, right before our eyes, grew up to be the rarest of athletes, the prodigy who fully realizes his promise. And what fun we had in that summer of the long ball, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, laughing around the basepaths, reduced Babe Ruth to an asterisk.
Then came a raw-boned Texan, an angry child of a broken home, a cancer survivor, usually seen on some high-number cable channel as a yellow-jerseyed blur on the French countryside.
Who’d have thought we’d fall for a Spandexed dude on a bike?
But that’s the way it happens when the guy comes with a good story.
Armstrong’s story couldn’t be believed, except we wanted to believe it. He had been a good cyclist but nothing special. That changed with the cancer. He survived testicular cancer that spread through his torso to his brain. Afterward, he became a great athlete. It was a story too good to be true — except we wanted it to be true.
That’s what we want out of sports. We want the fantasy. It brightens the dark corners of life. To see a healthy Robert Griffin III take flight in the burgundy and gold is to see a work of the athlete’s art that we had never imagined. Mountains that for decades had defied every sprinter’s best efforts became speed bumps for Armstrong straight out of the cancer ward.
We are all Walter Mitty. We are Earth-bound people who see Felix Baumgartner jump off that ledge in the sky and think, “Yeah, I could totally do that.” So Armstrong’s bike becomes a bicycle built for two. We ride along. We’ve beaten cancer. We’re pedaling faster than a newspaper boy on an overslept Sunday morning. Up that mountain, we fly past the French farmers sipping a red and nibbling breakfast cheese. Every night, we crawl into bed wearing that yellow jersey. Damn, we’re good.
We can deal with the first betrayal by our heroes. It comes when we realize that they’re in the game not for the art, but for the money.
It’s the second betrayal that hurts. It comes when we realize that these are crazy people who’ve made Faustian deals.
They know the rules, and they don’t care about the rules. Rose felt entitled to gamble, Woods to chase. McGwire had androstenedione in his locker and Jose Canseco sticking a needle in his rear. Poor Sosa came to Congress, in his 20th year in the United States, and swore under oath that he didn’t understand a word of English, especially if that word was spelled s-t-e-r-o-i-d-s. Tour de France riders have died in their sleep, their blood so gummed up by drugs delivered intravenously that the resting heart can no longer move it.
Walter Mitty never rode with Mephistopheles.
Americans are forgiving. We are eager to embrace our heroes, even after they fall. Think again of Te’o. If he is a conspirator in the hoax, as soon as he admits it, explains it and apologizes, we’ll move on to the next bizarre story. The truth is that he would go into an apology with a measure of goodwill, since he became infamous in a year when he finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting and Notre Dame played for the national championship. Winning is the best deodorant.
Ray Lewis knows that. The perennial All-Pro linebacker has helped the Baltimore Ravens win so many games for so long that we have all but forgotten that he was a murder suspect after a nightclub brawl 13 years ago and pled guilty to obstruction of justice in that case. It also helps that Lewis’s dark moment was only one incident and had nothing to do with his game — just as Woods’s pursuit of women who were not his wife apparently didn’t interfere with his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 majors.
The chance to win may be why Armstrong now seems willing to be a snitch, turning state’s evidence against his sport’s top executives in hopes of reducing his lifetime ban. Then he would compete in elite triathlons.
But forgiveness comes slowly if Our Heroes insult our intelligence. Did Armstrong imagine we would not notice the accumulating testimony of witnesses? Yet videotape of his denials, spliced into a documentary, would run longer than anything Ken Burns ever put together.
Forgiveness is delayed, too, if they drag their sport into the gutter. Marion Jones was the most magnetic personality in women’s track and field, America’s smiling sweetheart at the Sydney Olympics, earning five medals, three of them gold. Then she lied about her doping and lied again, until she had lied so often that a perjury charge sent her to prison.
Redemption begins with confession. But saying you’re sorry, contrite and ashamed isn’t easy when you’ve built a life and career of deceit, lies and magic potions. Think of baseball’s Hall of Fame voting this winter. Though perhaps as many as seven newly eligible players belonged in the Hall, none was elected.
Not Barry Bonds, the greatest home run hitter. Not Roger Clemens, the greatest Cy Young winner. Not even the 3,000-hit second baseman Craig Biggio, guilty of nothing worse than playing in Houston but caught in the crossfire of angry baseball-writer voters who punished everyone for . . . for . . . for what?
For not fessing up? There is that. Bonds and Clemens have denied using steroids; no one has proved otherwise, and neither man will spill now. There is this, too: The voters were simply angry that their game was despoiled, for at heart they are all romanticists of the W.P. Kinsella kind. The novelist once wrote about baseball: “Within the baselines, anything can happen. Tides can reverse; oceans can open. That’s why they say, ‘The game is never over until the last man is out.’ Colors can change, lives can alter, anything is possible in this gentle, flawless, loving game.”
We want to believe that. We keep faith in our games despite a century of evidence suggesting they deserve our wrath. The Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series for gamblers’ money. In 1903, Tour de France riders ingested strychnine to jump-start their hearts. Today, a vast array of pharmaceuticals allows NFL players to do their insane work.
We know that and prefer to ignore it. We like thinking that these are kids playing kids’ games. We want to believe that a man can survive cancer and by the strength of his will and the gift of his athletic talents become the greatest cyclist ever.
So when Lance Armstrong breaks the mythological spell by playing us for fools, it seems appropriate that we romanticists should do two things:
Make a donation to Livestrong, the cancer-awareness foundation Armstrong founded but has already left — and then suggest they save money by not mailing you a yellow bracelet.
As for Manti Te’o, we’ll likely soon learn more about the girlfriend who lived only in his mind, but the available evidence suggests that we romanticists should do one thing and do it now:
Pray for him.