The truth, they say, is out there.
Somewhere between the myth-making and the hero-worship and the legend-building, somewhere beyond the darkness of fiction and the fog of what we wish to be true, stands the brightness that is the truth.
Lance Armstrong knows this. Manti Te’o knows this. The rest of us received our periodic reminders during one of the weirdest sports weeks in memory.
Not that Armstrong’s interview with Oprah was weird or surprising. It merely confirmed what everybody knew, although it was almost refreshing to see an athlete — no matter how long it took him to reach that point — sit and answer every question in what appeared to be an honest and open fashion.
Narcissistic, yes. Controlling, indeed. The man comes across as a borderline sociopath. Yet Armstrong was more honest and open than Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens or Sammy Sosa have ever been in addressing doping allegations.
But the Te’o story? Weird doesn’t begin to describe it. The tale of the Notre Dame linebacker’s fake dead girlfriend was jaw-dropping enough to twist and bend and shake the truth until you question your own sensibilities.
At worst, Te’o invented the scam out of whole cloth, although at this point I don’t think that’s what happened. At best, he propagated the myth and watched it grow into a wildfire, assisted by a compliant media lapping at the salt lick of a delicious story.
Read the stories and watch the interviews from this past season and, in retrospect, Te’o clearly is lying on some level.
He talks about support from his dead girlfriend’s family; he alters his story of how they met; he evades certain questions about the “love of my life.” And, although the timeline put forth by Notre Dame says he realized it was a hoax in early December, he spoke lovingly of her to the media several times after that. Wouldn’t want to mess up a good story with the facts now, would we?
At the very least, Te’o milked the story for personal gain and national sympathy in order to raise his profile. All of which places the rest of us in an Orwellian reality: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
While truth and lies and honesty and deceit supply the heft for each of these stories, the core is occupied by a very basic human need for myth-making.
We need heroes. We crave heroes. We relish the stories of people pushing beyond what we believed was humanly possible.
If Lance Armstrong can overcome cancer and honestly win seven straight Tour de France titles, there are no limits. If Manti Te’o can play through the pain of loss and make Notre Dame football relevant again, then I can deal with my insignificant problems.
Yet, as Chuck Klosterman wrote last week on Grantland.com: “The public’s intangible, mediated relationship with Te’o isn’t that different from Te’o’s intangible, mediated relationship with a woman who wasn’t there.”
That is the lesson to be learned here. We don’t know these athletes; we know the myths.
It isn’t so much about fabrications as it is about fantasies. We want to believe. We need Rudy and we need “win one for the Gipper” (also a fabrication).
There’s a reason Superman and Batman have spawned decades worth of comic books and movies, and sports can provide real-life versions of such heroes. It might be the only remaining facet of society that can produce them, and the media is willing to play Willie Wonka in that fantasy: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
That might be why the media was the only institution to have a worse week than Notre Dame. The telling and the retelling of the dead girlfriend story became so much manna to the national media that reporters didn’t bother to check basic facts — such as whether she actually existed.
The South Bend Tribune even wrote about Te’o’s initial meeting with his girlfriend and likely set a new standard for purple prose: “Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te’o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes.”
To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have checked either. Sports Illustrated, The Associated Press, the New York Times, and others, all ran stories about the dead girlfriend without bothering to find out whether she was an actual person. It’s not the kind of question you think to ask.
And so we spent last week grasping for the truth, listening to Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o and attempting to search the gaps between the myths and the legends. Attempting to reconcile the need for inspirational stories and the need to remain grounded.
For, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” And yet it’s out there. Somewhere.