Slow week in sports, huh?
Just when you thought it was safe to tune in, rip off the knob and sit back for full-on, saturated coverage of the NFL conference championships and the end of the NHL labor snafu, insanity intervened.
Well, if not insanity, at least some behaviors tucked within your friendly neighborhood psychologist’s manual of mental disorders. And it was enough for CNN, TMZ and (God help us all) OWN to supplant ESPN as your source for up-to-the-minute athletic “news” for a few days.
In case you were sidelined by the flu or kidnapped by zombies, here’s the skinny.
Lance Armstrong went to confession with the High Priestess of Humanism, Oprah Winfrey. The Man With the Golden Bracelets cathartically if not calculatedly told America that, yes, after recovering from testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs, he chose to turn his body into a chemistry set for the purpose of competitive cycling.
Not to be outdone, Notre Dame and star linebacker Manti Te’o went public with information they had conveniently concealed for more than a month. It made Armstrong’s revelation sound less scandalous than an account of what he ate for breakfast. We learned that the “girlfriend” who survived a near-fatal car accident, only to die of leukemia hours before a September game against Michigan State, was nothing more than Te’o’s personal Mr. Snuffleupagus.
Naturally, like everything else in America these days, our opinion on these matters is both unequivocal and divided.
Some of us celebrate Armstrong’s exposure with wringing, sweaty palms. He’s a fraud! A cheat! A liar! And in perhaps the most unforgivable of his crimes, an arrogant son-of-a-gun! We wish him a lifetime of seclusion in his personal hell of narcissism and bitterness.
Others in the gallery would continue to hail Armstrong as a hero if he had admitted to Oprah that he fathered nine children out of wedlock and failed to pay his taxes since the first Bush administration. He conquered cancer, after all, and cancer survivors in our society have become as unassailable an entity as children and animals. We see the masses he inspired and the funds he helped generate, each in the millions, and are fully convinced that the end justified the means.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Probably all of us.
I’m no Armstrong fan at all. I always viewed him as a slightly above-average world-class cyclist (he finished 36th in his last full Tour de France before the cancer diagnosis — you can look it up) who then started juicing more efficiently than Jack LaLanne. And the smugness of his repeated denials made the finger-wagging of Rafael Palmeiro and Bill Clinton appear sheepish by comparison.
It is easy, then, to celebrate his downfall. But it is hard to ignore the inspiration Armstrong provided to those who invested far more emotionally in him than I. One of my social media friends this week thanked the cyclist for facing six months doubled over in nausea, the effect of chemotherapy, so that she had the courage to do the same. Tough to rebut that one.
We’re all fallen creatures at the core, and that side of me says Armstrong constructed this house of cards knowing it someday would collapse. Maybe he was willing to risk losing it all — primarily that wall lined with fraudulent yellow jerseys — to help his fellow man.
I hope that was it. Martyrdom is a more admirable quality than megalomania.
At least Armstrong left us feeling like we had been given the facts to make an informed decision. Four days into the unraveling of the Te’o myth, none of us have a clue what to make of this love story turned public humiliation.
Again, we’re polarized, and again, our conclusion falls in line with our personal bias.
There are those in our midst — and I cannot possibly comprehend their misguided passion (wink, nudge, chuckle) — who worship Notre Dame football. No, really. Even after that undressing by Alabama in the title game, they were prepared to carve Te’o on the Mount Rushmore of Irish Inspiration next to Gipper and Rudy. They will continue to hail Te’o as the consummate leader and a gentle, trusting soul who was led astray by jealous haters in his inner circle.
They’re balanced by those of us who find the trappings of South Bend obnoxious, pretentious, even blasphemous. Our knees hurt from slapping them repeatedly in the aftermath of this episode.
We’ve watched “Catfish” and have seen the caliber of bottom-feeders who fall for the online beauty queen that ends up being a dude with a mustache and carrying 350 pounds of adipose tissue. If Te’o wasn’t complicit in this scam for whatever it might have gained him, then his falling for it makes Brian Bosworth seem a genius by comparison. Good luck with your Wonderlic test at the NFL combine, buddy.
Somebody — Deadspin? Jeremy Schaap? Bob Costas? Oprah? — will unearth the truth. It probably will fall squarely in the middle, making our initial reactions look extreme and silly.
So what have we learned this week, kids?
That the answers are never easy. That sports, for all its problems, is still our great escape and remains the original reality television.
It’s the place where you can become a hero the easiest. And crash the hardest.
Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.