Timing brought Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o together under the same microscope this week.
Armstrong and Te’o come from completely different worlds, yet their names will forever be linked by simultaneous scandal and dysfunction. There is more to this connection than a hand-in-hand fall from grace, though: a storyline becoming all too familiar in athletics today.
Our society has an unhealthy obsession with worshipping its sports heroes. On the way up, budding superstars become infallible gods as they earn the ‘next big thing’ nametag. At the summit of their careers, they’re untouchable and unapproachable. More often than not, the questions and concerns only arrive after we’re ‘done’ with them; when the intoxication wears off, the truth becomes crystal clear in hindsight.
Armstrong doped his way to seven Tour de France titles. He admitted as much – finally – on Thursday, but only after over a decade of denial and destruction. Armstrong not only lied about the lies, but even sued those trying to tell the truth.
The Te’o yarn is still being unwound, but like Armstrong’s tall tales, the manipulation and deceit involved with faking the death of a fictitious girlfriend seems coldly calculated. I find it hard to believe Te’o wasn’t pulling strings from behind the curtain. We’ll find out the when and the why later on, but for now, it’s almost impossible to believe his proclamation of innocence.
Both Armstrong and Te’o were treated like kings at the height of their fame. The red flags and warning signs were certainly there in retrospect, but ignored by doting fans and mesmerized media members who were along for the feel-good ride.
Notre Dame’s athletic director let the crocodile tears flow during a bizarre news conference earlier this week. He tried to sell Te’o as the victim – similar to Armstrong’s line of defense once the tables began to turn on him.
Par for the course.
I don’t solely blame Armstrong or Te’o. Celebrities are treated with unconditional admiration when their popularity approaches its pinnacle. They begin to feel invincible.
When Armstrong said he justified his cheating as it transpired, that actually makes sense to me given the culture and environment of the moment. Did Te’o rationalize his actions as harmless self-promotion during a Heisman Trophy race? Certainly possible. Again, culture and environment.
If these people are constantly being identified as omnipotent figures by a support system supposedly looking out for their best interests, the hyperbole can and often will create an alternate world that blurs the lines between right and wrong or yes and no.
Twenty years ago, professional basketball star Charles Barkley embarked on his ”I am not a role model” campaign. Barkley contended that true role models are parents, teachers, coaches and the other leaders in our own communities that we come into contact with every day – not strangers wearing the colors of our favorite team.
At the argument’s crux, Barkley is right. We need to hold ourselves and each other to a higher standard in the real world while worrying less about the wins, losses and decisions of the men and women we idolize on the playing field.
If balance is truly coveted in our daily lives, perspective is needed now more than ever in athletics.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org