Sports are supposed to be the escape from the serious stuff that angers us. Finding so much outrage amid fun/games/entertainment feels like finding hypodermic needles in the funhouse, like getting food poisoning from the gingerbread house. We don’t get this kind of mad at Sylvester Stallone, another entertainer, when he is arrested chucking all his illegal HGH off a hotel balcony in Australia. Maybe it is because we know he is merely an actor. But, given how often sports fans and media have been betrayed, we should know by now that so many athletes are just paid actors, too.
The real scandal
Armstrong and Te’o were never merely saints when we loved them, and they are not merely frauds now that we don’t. They are closer to being both than they ever were to being an either-or. They, like all of us, exist in the in-between bridging extremes, but our demand for “the truth” on these stories, while it sounds noble in principle, rationalizes away our clucking, gossipy bad behavior, too, as we loudly heckle these on-stage performers for disappointing us during what is supposed to be a play.
Unbelievable. You hear the phrase a lot in sports. For the good stuff. Upsets, comebacks, little sports miracles. They are unbelievable. From there, fans and media leap to “make-believe,” mythologizing our sports heroes with adulation and worship, making them into their great athletic acts, assigning haloed character traits to them because they are great with a ball or a bike. The unbelievable in sports is pure and true, but the make-believe is pure and true bull feces. Merging the two contaminates both, and it feels like a linebacker and cyclist collided full-speed last week at the intersection of “unbelievable” and “make believe.” We’re OK with the way we mythologize; we’re far less OK with Armstrong and Te’o feeding it.
The result? You can’t make up the stuff that happens in sports, even when so many of the participants are making up the stuff that happens in sports, so a fake on a bike and a college football player’s fake dead girlfriend somehow pushed off the sports stage something a lot more real: Despite a history of racial bias in management, and a rule put in place to help minorities, America’s most popular league, the NFL, quietly finished filling all seven of its new head-coaching with white men, the last of whom actually has a last name pronounced Aryans.
Poor Te’o. He gets trampled here. He’s not exactly an innocent, but he is a kid, and evidently not a very bright one. If what he keeps claiming is true, that he was too trusting, that he got tricked into believing an Internet girlfriend existed and then hand-fed a mythologizing media some fiction after he was duped to cover his understandable shame, he doesn’t deserve infamy this size. Heck, unlike Armstrong’s lies for profit, Te’o didn’t even win the damn amateur trophy his loudest critics say his lies were concocted to attract. He finished second. His is a victimless crime, but his greatest offense may be playing for the religious school, Notre Dame, that has trafficked on sports mythology more than any other ever, and to great profit. Hard to believe Te’o would find himself in exactly this position if all the confusing facts about his story were exactly the same, but he played at Kansas State.
Yelling at the stage as the curtain falls, demanding truth and answers in this make-believe world, Scorn’d Sports Consumers slink out of this absurd theater today and have to wonder: Are Armstrong and Te’o the only ones here who should be feeling the shame?