Back in the 1600s, British playwright William Congreve produced The Mourning Bride. It had kings and love and mistaken identity and disguises and beheading and tragedy. All the things you saw in sports just last week, basically.
The play’s most enduring contribution to modern culture was the closing line from Act III: Heav’n has no rage like love to hatred turn’d. Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d. Hence the saying, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. But it appears Scorn’d Woman might lose in a pay-per-view heavyweight match in Hell today against Scorn’d Sports Consumer, as disgraced Lance Armstrong and shamed Manti Te’o can tell you today while soaked in so much love-to-hatred-turn’d.
Fraud! Liar! Hoax! The crowd at this particular play seems to enjoy shouting these things when the disguises fall apart, turning our kings to court jesters when they fall down on stage. Why? Because, while we wrap them in collisions and testosterone, sports are really just soap operas for males, allowing us to cluck and gossip in a way that feels masculine. Mock the gossip-monger for his or her obsession with celebrity in the supermarket’s magazine aisle, but what we witnessed last week was the Kardashianization of our sports-news cycle, swallowed as it was by Scorn’d Sports Consumer.
This includes fans and media alike, by the way. Not exonerating us here, not by a long shot. There are reasons this story climbed from inside the playpen of your newspaper to the very front page, where adult things should reside. You crave this mess. We provide it. Then, inevitably, we overindulge at feeding your cravings, for profit and for clicks, and you get mad at and blame us, the evil media, and we are all just a little bit dumber by transaction’s end. In the interim, while the media feeds you well past the point you’ve lost your appetite, guys like Armstrong make that up-down-up journey from god-to-fraud-to-martyr as if he were still riding all those mountains on that bike.
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Armstrong, a very smart cheater, knows all this. It is why he volunteered to step into the made-for-TV confessional booth under no obligation, flanked by attorneys, to purge himself in two parts … so that he could start turning the rage to pity by giving his story one of those fresh blood transfusions that got him into so much trouble in the first place. Having conquered cancer and mountains, the devil-god on a bicycle is not daunted by impossible climbs, and so another begins for him now.
But the Scorn’d Sports Consumer must be heard first, damn it, so we will call Armstrong names and we’ll gather up our pitchforks and our torches, and we’ll even go find Oprah Winfrey, wherever she is now, to lead our angry mob. Alter your perspective by stepping back and gathering yourself amid all this hysteria for just a moment, though, and what you will see is that we pounced with furious anger and great vengeance upon:
1) A guy on a bicycle.
2) A college kid with an imaginary friend.
We gossip and cluck about what they were hiding just like those supermarket tabloids wonder about what John Travolta is concealing, the coverage so very disproportionate to the “crimes.” So, too, is the anger and the need for answers and the whole absurd and wonderful circus that should come with soap-operatic strains and dramatic turns toward the camera on cue. Athletes are competition-aholics looking for every advantage, cheating included, like junkies look for a high. College kids do dumb things and lie, even the famous ones who play for Notre Dame. It is so redundant, though, this rinse-repeat way we behave about sports, first turning athletes into gods and then turning on them when these false gods we’ve created are revealed to be merely human. Then again, soap operas have been recycling the same storylines since before both soap and opera.
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?