From Pheidippides running all the way to Athens from Marathon only to drop dead after delivering news of a Greek victory, to Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano’s emotional battle with leukemia this season, sports have always been the source of powerful stories that inspire others. Yet as we saw on two separate occasions last week, our collective need to believe in the ability of athletes to overcome life’s most dire challenges can often—and easily—overwhelm common sense, an endless stream of evidence and even journalists’ normal instincts to check the facts.
I’m talking of course about Lance Armstrong, the heretofore impervious (and always imperious) cyclist who finally admitted that illegal doping was behind his incredible success, and Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame linebacker whose mind-boggling story about a dead girlfriend who was never really alive shows him to be either the most naive person on the planet or, as some reports claim, a shrewd manipulator of the media and public opinion.
Both of these stories have led to a lot of soul-searching by the media (which I always find entertaining; I secretly think the media loves to report on its own failures). In Lance Armstrong’s case many prominent reporters say they were duped by the athlete’s years of lies while many others were scared off by Armstrong’s habit of suing anyone and everyone who dared to look into his past. In Manti Te’o's case the media is falling back on the excuse that they merely relied on the work of reporters before them when looking for facts for their own stories. It was a game of telephone gone terribly wrong, especially given the complete lack of evidence of Te’o's “girlfriend’s” death (or even her birth, for that matter).
So what’s going on here? What is it about sports and athletes that makes us forget all reason and look past behavior that none of us would tolerate in our personal lives? Why do people like Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o and so many others get our complete trust, even when the evidence suggests a different story altogether?
Personally, I think it’s because sports fans see athletes living their lives outside the rules that so many of us would love to shed. Who wouldn’t want to play a game for a living, and make fabulous sums of money doing it? Who wouldn’t want a clear winner and loser in a world filled with ambiguity? Who doesn’t love the idea of facing life’s great tragedies with millions of people cheering us on?
We give our athletes endless rope, then act horrified when they use it to hang others and harm themselves. We forgive endlessly and forget quickly. We love the stories they tell us because they say about what we might one day be able to accomplish if it wasn’t for the mortgage and the bills and the dead-end job…
So we’ll all act contrite and say that we won’t be duped by the likes of Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o again. We’ll tell ourselves that we really know nothing of these people beyond what they allow us to see. And we’ll swear off inspirational stories about athletes like we swear off alcohol the morning after drinking too much.
This time it will be different. We promise.
By the way, have you heard about Ray Lewis, the inspirational leader of the Baltimore Ravens? He’s a true warrior, a pious man of God who has overcome a checkered past to become an inspiration to millions.
Forget all those other guys. He’s the real deal.