The media ought to stay out of athletes’ private lives. All that matters is what happens on the field.
Except, of course, when there’s a sweet, inspiring story about pluck, determination and overcoming obstacles. A girlfriend who just happened to die the same day as your grandmother, say. Or beating cancer and raising money to help others fight it.
Closing a week full of the hype-ocracy in sports media, it’s worth reflecting on the enduring need to make athletes more than mere competitors. It’s as ancient as Pindar’s ode to the upright character of a victorious boxer, literally conflating myth with reality: “And now, with the music of flute and lyre alike I have come to land with Diagoras, singing the sea-child of Aphrodite and bride of Helios, Rhodes, so that I may praise this straight-fighting, tremendous man who had himself crowned beside the Alpheus and near Castalia, as a recompense for his boxing…” In the modern age, media more sophisticated than flute and lyre helped fashion legends with little basis in reality. Take the saintly George Gipp, who was not above (like many college players of his time) making money by playing under an assumed name, or Grover Cleveland Alexander, whose most challenging obstacle was his fondness for alcohol, both portrayed by Ronald Reagan as heroes they actually weren’t.
Now that both Manti Te’o and Lance Armstrong have (sorta) come clean — Te’o admitting he embellished the hoax about his dead girlfriend and Armstrong crying on Oprah’s shoulder — it’s clear that top-shelf athletes and their handlers are well aware how crucial it is to generate myths about themselves beyond the fields (or roads) of play. Te’o must have known how nicely it burnished his image to make a beloved girlfriend out of an unseen acquaintance. For years, Armstrong lied about doping because he knew his credibility depended on it; now, with that credibility in shreds, he knows he needs to kneel at Oprah’s altar to keep making a buck.
Many questions remain about the Te’o fiasco, particularly about Notre Dame’s handling of it. The New York Times, at least, has bothered to compare how assiduously the school investigated the Te’o hoax with its relative lack of attention to an alleged rape by a football player.
You have to wonder, too, why Te’o and the school did not come clean about the hoax when they first learned of it, well before the BCS championship game. Sure, they didn’t want the team distracted, but it might have made more sense to get it out of the way before someone else broke the story. Heck, it might have made for another type of heartstrings-tugging pregame story: the cruel treatment of a sweetly gullible guy: Win one for Duped!
All of this returns us to Pindar, who, in that ode to Diagoras the boxer, made it clear both that fate is fickle and that athletes should be of good character. Let us remember, “That man is prosperous, who is encompassed by good reports.”