A question of character

Today didn't have much of a chance to be a good day for sports.

Lance Armstrong's buzzed-about interview with Oprah Winfrey is set to air and expected to address the question of whether Armstrong doped during his once-awe-inspiring string of seven Tour de France titles. I'll be surprised if Armstrong gives a straight answer (and even more surprised if Oprah asks a hard-hitting question and then gives him a chance to speak, but I digress), but either way, more harm will be done to the tarnished reputations of an athlete and a sport.

Sports took another, perhaps harder, hit on Wednesday, with the bizarre unraveling of a story that had become - to no one's credit - accepted college football lore. I first heard of the personal tragedies endured by Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o on a College GameDay report several months ago. The report detailed the deaths of the young man's grandmother and girlfriend in a matter of hours (or was it days?) and the inspiration Te'o drew from them to keep playing - and, therefore, the inspiration the Notre Dame community and lo, the very nation, drew from Te'o. I found the network's treatment of said story typically cloying, but it was still a good story.

Too good, as it turns out.

I'm greatly bothered, and on many levels, by that fact. It's unsettling in different ways than Armstrong's ongoing troubles.

First and foremost, I'm ashamed that, yet again, mainstream media has been exposed as a bunch of gullible, hook-and-sinker-swallowing headline chasers who think "vetting" is what you do when you take your cat in for shots. I inwardly rolled my eyes the fourth time Te'o's story was told, but I never thought, as Deadspin.com did, to actually check and see if it was true. When Deadspin did check, it found there was no Social Security Administration record of the death of Teo's supposed girlfriend, Lennay Kekua. Kekua had, as the story went and went, died of leukemia, diagnosed after she was involved in a serious car accident. (There is no record of that, either.) Now, it seems, Kekua did not exist, that the stories of Te'o falling asleep on the phone with her in her hospital bed were a fabrication, that the picture posted onscreen when the story was told and re-told was that of another woman, very much alive and very surprised to see her picture being presented as that of a dead girl, that the dates of the deaths of Te'o's grandmother and girlfriend varied from article to article.  

The entire article is fascinating and detailed and an all-too-rare example of the fine journalism a simple public records search can produce. It's weird and head-shaking and hard to fathom and a must-read.

The inevitable and speedy spin is that Te'o is the victim here, duped by unscrupulous folk (at least one of whom, according to the article, was his close friend) into believing in the existence of Kekua, whom he apparently never met but fell in love with anyway. I might be ever so slightly inclined to buy that ... were Te'o not a Heisman hopeful at a university with a tradition of myth-making that borders on just plain making stuff up. (Joe Theismann, if you didn't know, pronounced his name Theez-mann before he got to Notre Dame, which suggested he change it, Norma Jean-style, to rhyme with Heisman - an award heavily hyped Irish quarterbacks have a historically hard time winning. Some (including Joe Montana) have said that iconic underdog Rudy was carried off the field as a joke. And don't get me started on the Gipper.) I might buy it if the fictitious girlfriend's death had not been packaged and sold with the very real death of Te'o's grandmother, a woman he supposedly adored. I might buy it if the shiny lie hadn't been sold, over and over, with at least the complicit cooperation of a kid who, at any point, could have stopped the charade. I'm sure it would have been difficult once the machine got moving. But it could have been done.

A friend of mine posed the question, in light of all these sordid events: Who is more morally bankrupt, Armstrong or Te'o? The response was quick and heavily weighted toward Armstrong, who is, after all, a grown man, and one who also perpetrated a long lie, intimidating those who threatened to expose it, riding to glory along the Champs de Elysee with champagne in his hand and deceit in his heart. OK, sure. He's also a man who overcame the cancer that nearly killed him and helped raise a boatload of money for people afflicted with a disease that really and truly kills millions. Is he a nice person? It doesn't seem so. Does that matter? Not if your child or mother or lover one day benefits from that money. 

Armstrong's cancer-fighting charity, Livestrong, will outlive him and his undeniable character flaws. The hope Armstrong's fight gave people such as my husband, who found a hero in the man more than the athlete when his father was dying of cancer, is stronger than a cyclist's concrete calves pedaling up the Pyrenees.

What will Te'o's legacy be? That will largely depend on an NFL future that took a hit with his underwhelming performance in Alabama's thorough thrashing of Notre Dame in the national championship game. Right now, though, he stands as a symbol of much that is wrong with sports - not to mention journalism - today, a person who put self-interest above integrity, who either conceived of or allowed the continuation of a lie that increased his name recognition and marketability. Where's the harm in that, some ask. Would you want him to take out your daughter, then? How might he use her to his advantage?

Neither man is exempt from blame, and neither is completely worthy of contempt. Neither provides much hope for the human condition, but perhaps one at least, even indirectly, provides a little for the human race.

UPDATE: Just saw this piece. Two thoughts: I'll cut the Sports Illustrated reporter some slack, because he did make some calls and interviewed a number of people. I've taken less on face value at times, I'm sure. Secondly, this doesn't sound much like a player who's the victim of some elaborate conspiracy to me.