After Te'o and Armstrong, what is safe to believe anymore?
Usain Bolt had bionic tendons implanted in his legs and undergoes cheetah-blood transfusions the night before every race.
Gary Player is a closeted sugar addict who secretly hoards Twinkies in a South African bunker.
Tim Tebow covertly operates a string of sweat shops in the Philippines.
All of these above claims, of course, are as real as Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend. But the icon myth busting is reaching such epic proportions it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s fake anymore in the world of sports.
On the eve of cancer-surviving cycling demigod Lance Armstrong’s anticipated televised doping confessional to Oprah Winfrey, sports fans were rocked with another exposé of a too-good-to-be-true tall tale. All of this just a week after baseball failed to induct any formerly sure-fire superstars into the Hall of Fame because of the spreading taint of steroids.
Turns out the dead girlfriend at the foundation of the Manti Te’o Heisman-building campaign was just another Notre Dame myth. The second punch of the double whammy of tragic news Te’o received a few days before his breakout Michigan State performance – that his grandmother (real) and leukemia-stricken girlfriend (not real) died within hours of each other – was just a tragedy enhancer that triggered a media escalation about a classic story of perseverance.
That story, combined with Te’o’s athletic gifts, helped not only fuel Notre Dame’s drive to the BCS title game but pushed Te’o to runner-up in the Heisman Trophy balloting – the highest finish ever by an exclusively defensive player. It allowed many voters to completely ignore the fact that Te’o’s stats weren’t as impressive as at least two other exceptional defensive players (South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and Georgia’s Jarvis Jones) whose impacts were arguably as significant to their own top 10 programs’ successes.
There’s nothing like a good backstory involving the Fighting Irish to get out the vote nationally.
Te’o and Notre Dame now claim he was the victim of a “cruel hoax” that they didn’t find out about until Dec. 26 but didn’t bother to come clean about publicly until not just long after the story was perpetuated on the BCS stage, but after Deadspin.com exposed the fabrication in great detail.
Perhaps Te’o was duped in a long con, but his own actions and statements raise plenty more questions. At best, he merely got caught up in his own legend, adding detailed embellishments (the eye contact at a Stanford game in 2009, the supposed meetings in Hawaii, the flowers sent to the non-existent funeral) once he realized just how strongly the story was playing to eager masses and how it elevated his profile.
At heart, Te’o is yet another cautionary tale of hero building. We all watch sports to see amazing athletes do amazing things, and we so desperately want to believe the ones who every now and then seem too good to be true. The media failed its due diligence, although it was easy not to doubt the authenticity of a story that was held aloft by so many different sources involving such a well-respected team leader.
The Armstrong demise is another sad story altogether. Reasonable people did doubt whether it was possible for a cancer survivor to race “clean” in the notoriously dirty sport of cycling and win an unprecedented seven consecutive times in the world’s most grueling human sports event, the Tour de France. As someone who stood on the Champs-Élysées the day Armstrong took that seventh victory lap in Paris, I wanted it to be real even though deep down we knew he had to be like all the rest – only better.
So many people longed to believe it and believe his years and years of emphatic denials. Then came the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report that was so extensive that even Armstrong couldn’t deny it anymore. He quit the bullying and then finally called upon Oprah to confess so he can try to rebrand himself and salvage a second act. After all the serial lying, who’s buying?
Sports have become so judgmental. Armstrong and Te’o are just the newest installments in the Hall of Shame following the recent inductions of Joe Paterno, Tiger Woods and an entire generation of baseball players. We all cheered when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa “saved the game” with their home run derby in 1998, only now voters flatly refuse to ever let either one of them into Cooperstown without paying admission.
The Hall of Fame status of unquestionable baseball giants like Barry Bonds* and Roger Clemens* are at risk after initial rebuffs on the ballot.
This is the state of modern athletics in the performance-enhanced, Internet era. Heroes and icons are built up until they stumble into being punchlines on social media. So walk a tight rope Rory McIlroy, Robert Griffin III, Bryce Harper, et al.
And when the next superstar comes along, we would appreciate it if you bring to the interview room a blood sample, certificate of live birth, any relevant published death notices, notarized affidavits from references and at least two vetted and reliable witnesses.