For the last week, two personalities have dominated the coverage of just about every sports publication out there: disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong and imaginary girlfriend Lennay Kekua. The story of Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o’s nonexistent relationship even made it to the front page of the BBC News website, not usually an organization known for its coverage of American football, let alone American college football.
Armstrong may have been given a relatively sympathetic treatment by Oprah Winfrey, but most probably still feel let down by the once-superhero’s exposure as a serial drug cheat. But with his eventual admission of guilt — he was actually brought down late last year, though continued to deny the truth until last week —, hopefully now we can finally move on from the whole ordeal. In comparison, the Te’o saga meanwhile still feels suspiciously incomplete. We know that Kekua was a fictional character, but it remains unclear whether the linebacker had any part in the illusion or not.
While the media has lavished publication and broadcast space on both topics, and likely reaped the rewards in terms of greater reader, and viewership, it was at least partially complicit in both deceptions. Any self-respecting investigative journalists must be kicking themselves that they didn’t bring down one of the biggest names in sports many years earlier and one of my fellow columnists has already taken a serious swipe at Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel. Put bluntly, instead of following up on a lead that would have blown the Te’o story wide open three months ago, Thamel cut out any reference to the mysterious Kekua attending Stanford.
Partly, some of this may be down to traditional media struggling to survive in the world of social media. When you can read the news first — and for free — on Twitter, why would you ever buy a newspaper? In the rush to break the news and score the biggest online readership — the currency of the Internet — there doesn’t seem to be time to be suspicious, and why would you be anyway, when the story is already so magical?
But before you start feeling all smug, don’t think for a moment that I’m letting you off the hook either. As a society, we also have to take our fair share of the blame in these sorry sagas. It takes two parties to make any deception work and just as we journalists — and perhaps Te’o — should have been a little less naïve, you also shouldn’t have been so willing to trust us.
We all put these athletes on a pedestal and demand the superhuman from them. The average is just not interesting or acceptable. We don’t want ordinary people accomplishing difficult things; we want superheroes achieving the impossible. Like movie stars, their lives and achievements are supposed to come straight out of a Hollywood film script.
Even reaching the lowest level of professional sports takes years of dedication, getting up at dawn to train in the cold, carefully controlling your calorie intake, eschewing a normal childhood and somehow balancing school and sports. Just making it through all that is a phenomenal achievement on its own, but hardly something you could base a blockbuster film on, that’s what montages are for.
A good cyclist putting in solid performances in the Tour de France won’t make us sit up and pay attention, only a seven-time champion will. A solid defensive football player whose team goes undefeated in the regular season won’t be in the running for the Heisman Trophy, but one whose girlfriend recovers from a serious car accident only to then die heartbreakingly from leukemia — and on her deathbed dramatically imploring him to not to skip his upcoming game in order to attend her funeral — will.
And even when these people fail, we expect them to do so in an extraordinary way. Armstrong wasn’t just a drug cheat, he was the worst drug cheat ever, the chief architect behind the most calculated and nefarious attempt to deceive the authorities in the history of sports. Te’o wasn’t just a gullible kid, he was at the center of a cynical and egotistical lie intended solely to boost his national profile, bring home the Heisman and guarantee himself NFL riches.
But, when all is said and done, these people are just as normal, just as flawed — and by that I mean “human” —, as the rest of us. They’ll do, say and believe stupid things. Except, unlike the rest of us, we feed their habits. We don’t ask enough questions because we want to believe in them. Not in a conscious way where we honestly know something is up, but simply in not showing a sufficiently healthy dose of suspicion.
And just as we need to recognize the human frailties of our sporting superstars, we also need to recognize some of our own. However impartial and unbiased we may want to be or claim to be, however cynical and skeptical we think we are, we are not.
One of the cruelest ironies of The List, was how much flak sportswriters at this publication received from both fans and members of Stanford’s athletic department in its aftermath, because behind the scenes of The Daily are some of the most ardent fans of Stanford sports. Why else would we devote so much of our lives to covering even the lesser-known sports? Criticizing Stanford, criticizing players — and classmates —, does not come easily, but it is our job, and realizing that, we have to try.
Maybe coverage of the “easy” list of classes given to athletes by this publication back then was too harsh, but knowing that we have a weakness towards Cardinal sports sometimes focuses the need to treat even our own school with an overly critical eye.
We are lucky that Stanford is an exceptional place, that a lot of the time we get to write about yet another victory or another national title and so there is relatively little justification to get on the cases of coaches and players, but we cannot just sit back and believe.
If something seems too good, or bad, to be true — and any school being simultaneously ranked top ten in football and academics certainly seems suspicious — we owe it to each other to ask a few more questions, to not accept the answers we’re given on face value alone.
Tom Taylor was at one time a prospective Tour de France rider, retiring only when he found out that the race has hills. Question his fact-checking at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @DailyTomTaylor.