Armstrong and Te’o – betrayal in sport

It’s been a big week for sports stars in the media.

The Lance Armstrong confession leaks and then interview on Oprah was a masterclass in media manipulation, for which his PR and management team should be proud (and asking for a raise). Through a series of leaks, in which Armstrong was gradually revealed to be considering a confession, then confirming an Oprah appearance, then leaking details that he did indeed confess, they started the media cycle early. A shock confession out of the blue in a press conference or similar setting would have seen the rhetoric around the case engulf his actual confession. By leaking news early, they allowed almost three days of commentators, expert interviews, opinion pieces and so forth to explode then die out by the time of the Oprah chat, thus ensuring that by D-Day, people would just be waiting for the interview.

The bizarre Manti Te’o saga requires an equal suspension of belief. College football star, the darling of the sports media, overcomes double personal tragedy to lead his unfancied team through an undefeated season to the championship game. It reads like a Hollywood script; that is, too good to be true. The revelations about his fake girlfriend, and questions about what he did or didn’t know about the hoax, are still coming thick and fast three days after the story first broke. Te’o, too, has just finished an interview with ESPN on the episode; an off-camera one, for some reason, which will only come out through print media and second-hand reports, making it seem like the softly-spoken linebacker has something to hide from the cameras.

While in isolation, the stories themselves – cyclist takes drugs, college kid either has online girlfriend or lies about girlfriend (we still don’t know which it is yet) – aren’t much to look at. But the issue is not the story itself, or the actions; it’s about how these athletes made themselves out to be more than just athletes, made themselves out to be role models and heroes and championed causes. Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG charity made him out to be a golden god, the ironman who fought back from life-threatening cancer to win the Tour de France, one of the toughest physical challenges on earth and his sport’s Holy Grail. He fought doping allegations his whole career, and answered them with a simple explanation; “People think I’m cheating because I win. I’m not cheating. I’m just that good.”

Except he wasn’t. Armstrong confessed to using testosterone, blood transfusions and God knows what else. He shrugged off the fact that he burned and crushed people who spoke out against him. He ruined the lives of whistleblowers, winning fortunes in court settlements and defamation suits and smearing the names of those brave enough to speak out against him. No doubt Armstrong is a supreme athlete. But that’s not the point. By holding himself up as the embodiment of pureness in a sport littered with drug cheats, Armstrong was a light and a source of inspiration; a beacon of hope, that through hard work and dedication, you can beat the cheaters. That effort and perseverance would trump unfair play. The truth is, despite all that has happened, he still does not see his actions as cheating. In the Oprah interview, when asked if he was a cheat, he answered: “I went in and I just looked up the definition of cheat. And the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe, you know, that they don’t have or that they – you know, I didn’t do it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.”

That’s the same argument speeding motorists use when they try to talk their way out of a ticket: “but officer, everyone else was doing it too.” It makes no difference. Cheating is breaking the rules. And Armstrong broke the rules.

I believe that Te’o, while obviously not gaining any competitive advantage (other than psychologically, and through vocal public support) out of his story, perpetrated a similarly awful deception on the sporting world. It’s my opinion that Te’o was in on the fake girlfriend scam, in one way or another. There are too many inconsistencies, fallacies and (now) fumbling excuses for Te’o to have been totally oblivious to, or uninvolved in, the saga.  In this case, he is either stupid for allowing himself to be strung along like this, or (in my opinion, more likely) he was involved in some way, shape or form. His public remarks, while in the current context now seeming very evasive and cagey in terms of concrete details, still contain several points where Te’o admits to meeting the girl. He says they met after a game in California, and exchanged numbers. He calls her “the most beautiful girl I ever met,” with “met” being the key word here; note that he doesn’t say “the most beautiful girl I ever Tweeted at and talked to on the phone.”

If we are to say that Te’o is involved, then he too is guilty of an incredible act of deception. He played on his girlfriend’s death at every opportunity, saying he drew on her strength and memory in tough situations. Te’o became the star he is today partly due to his strength in the face of the adversity he faced after his girlfriend’s death. Notre Dame held cancer fundraisers in his girlfriend’s honour. This is not to say that Te’o did not overcome adversity, personal loss and tragedy in losing his grandmother on the same day that Kekua supposedly passed away; but (and here’s me being the absolute emotionless cynic) if you take the story back to just a dead grandmother, then Te’o would be no different than the presumably dozens of college players who lose loved relatives each year. It was the double loss of grandmother and girlfriend that propelled Te’o’s star.

And if, as I think will come out in coming days, Te’o is found to be involved in some way, then the young man should be forever tarred with a similar brush to Armstrong. This is not about the cheating itself; it’s about athletes putting themselves on pedestals, to be seen as something “more” than the rest of us, when in fact they ascended to the podium based on lies, deception and betrayal of the public they claim to love.

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