Sunday, January 20, 2013

Lance and Manti

Interesting week with the Lance Armstrong interview over two nights and the Manti Te'o story that is continuing to unfold - and no one knows where it will lead. Still, there are similarities between the two stories. Both are famous athletes, each one rising to the top of his sport. Lance is rich and Manti stands to make a lot of money in a pro football career. Both of their stories transcend the sport in which they dominated. Lance was the first American to dominate European cycling and then he dominated charity fundraising for cancer victims. Manti was the face of the newly reborn dominance of Notre Dame football. Now, however, each is sharing in the unwelcome and unpleasant scorning by the same public which so recently adored them - driven by the relentless bright lights of the media upon their sins. Lance's sins are many; lying, cheating, betrayal of loyal friends, adultery; he shattered the Ten Commandments like Moses on Mt Sinai.  Manti's sins are more subtle. What did he do wrong? He seems more the sinned against than the sinner. Was he merely gullible or stupid? Or does he just appear that way? Did he lead on his adoring public in order to make himself a sympathetic choice for college football's greatest award: The Heisman? He has admitted to embellishing his online relationship with a woman we now know never existed. Which leaves the door wide open to wonder, how much embellishing? How complicit was Notre Dame whose track record as a school handling crises is less than credible these days? If it smells like a cover-up, is it? We are a skeptical and suspicious sports public thanks to the nation of sports bloggers like Deadspin.

Both Lance and Manti are getting the full media treatment of ridicule (Letterman's top 10 on creating a fake woman) and criticism on all the sports pages. Every one getting a paycheck to comment on sports has weighed in, it seems. Lance and Manti are our latest sports scapegoats. There is so much wrong to day with college and professional sports: corruption, illegal recruiting, the money, as well as the use of banned substances, that any critic of popular sports culture has an embarrassingly easy target. We could just as well talk about the high level college coaches who leave their programs right before the NCAA violations committee shows up at their doors (Chip Kelley of Oregon is only the latest). Fans are fed up but can't stop watching, they are angry but still want to wear their jersies. So most of us pretend that it is still all about the game. You hope that's somewhere where sport is still pure, maybe when a Butler plays a Gonzaga, or a baseball icon like Stan the Man passes. But that somewhere keeps getting smaller and smaller and if we feel the pain so will someone else. So every once in a while we need these public confessions to make sport seem right again - at least until tomorrow.