This past week, a couple of very famous athletes admitted to lying. And needless to say, there are a LOT of people butthurt over the two situations. So I guess my question is: Why?
Obviously, the concept of lying in sports is nothing new. Hell, watch any press conference and you’ll see that today’s athletes are as equally trained in peddling bullshit as they are in the sport they play. So what makes Armstrong and Te’o’s lies so much more wicked than say, Nick Saban bolting to Alabama just a few days after emphatically telling everyone he was staying in Miami? Or Dwight Howard telling the media he didn’t try to get his coach shitcanned when in fact, his coach had just been told otherwise? Were these lies more tolerable because we expect lies from people like Saban and Howard?
I wrote awhile ago about Brett Favre and how his reverence was built upon the things he did on the field, and that only after we knew who was truly under the helmet did everyone feel duped. Armstrong and Te’o aren’t much different. While their deceit was far more blatant than Favre’s, the public outrage exploded for the same reason. It’s not just that they lied, but that the lies ruined the perception that these were infallible men.
All cynicism aside, shouldn’t we know better by now? Know better than to paint athletes as heroes even though we know very little about who they are as people, which, as we’ve seen, can be in stark contrast to who they are as athletes?
But Manti Te’o never claimed to have saved a thousand kittens from a burning building. Lance Armstrong never claimed to have John Rambo’d a splinter cell of Al Quaeda terrorists. They simply excelled in their sport, became public figures, and then were found to have not been as holy as the public and Rick Reilly wanted them to be. And speaking of Riles, seeing him pout like a scorned ex-girlfriend on ESPN might have been the most pathetic thing ever. As if somehow it’s not Reilly’s washed up writing, but his misled reporting on Armstrong for all these years that has his credibility in the shitter.
And look, I think we can all agree that lying is bad. But hearing Armstrong and Te’o lie about things as trivial as riding a bike or an imaginary girlfriend is about as relevant as a child saying it was the cookie monster who ate all the Oreos from the jar.
But again, this is the way of the American sports hero. Many of us love sports and adore our athletes. And that’s fine. But to quote Liam Neeson from Batman Begins,
“When you devote yourself to an ideal, you become more than just a man.”
Too often, that ideal in the eyes of fans is that athletes like Armstrong and Te’o aren’t just men. They’re myths. They’re legends. They’re (queue Charles Barkley’s head exploding) role models. Only for all the wrong reasons. The fact that Lance Armstrong cheated in cycling doesn’t change the fact he beat cancer. It doesn’t change that he raised money for research. Or that he helped the awareness of cancer in general reach new heights. None of that should be tainted. And yet, those aren’t the main things that made him a role model. Without cycling, he’s just another guy who beat cancer. And sadly, those people just aren’t as heroic as a guy in a yellow jersey climbing the Pyrenees.
Certainly, I’m not absolving Armstrong for the way he used his celebrity to earn millions, adoration and most of all, the dickish moves of suing any and all people who dared question the legitimacy of his success. That he’ll pay for both figuratively and literally.
But there’s a difference between misleading people into thinking you’re something you’re not, and someone you’re not. For Armstrong, he was never a true champion. But my guess is, he was always an egomaniacal jerk and a bully. One might argue that a lie’s impact is worsened when it comes from someone you weren’t expecting, but that’s just the thing with celebrities and athletes. We don’t really know any of them.
Armstrong and Te’o are just the latest reminder of that. So maybe it’s time we start altering what we expect from our athletes and stop elevating them to such lionized heights simply because of what they do on a field or a court or a mountain. Then again, if you need a reminder that real heroes run into actual burning buildings, or that real role models beat cancer without a Nike swoosh behind it, here’s another piece of advice:
Take one of those yellow bracelets, stretch it out as far as you can, and snap yourself in the eye.
Because you don’t just need a reminder. You need a wake up call.