In My Opinion

Fowler: Truth sent to bench in sports

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 19, 2013 

Today is not a good day in the world of sports. Today it seems like the whole place is full of liars.

Lance Armstrong was dirty when he won those seven Tour de Frances. It was all a farce, that sweet story of the cancer survivor winning all those races cleanly. He doped to win, again and again.

Armstrong told Oprah all about it this week, calling his situation “one big lie.” Yet he had attacked those who accused him of cheating for years. He was a defiant, guilt-free liar – the worst kind – and he never confessed until he was cornered.

“I was a bully in the sense that I tried to control the narrative,” Armstrong told Oprah.

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o didn’t have a girlfriend, and she didn’t die a tragic death, no matter how many sob stories were written and broadcast about her. She never existed. It was all an online hoax, sold to a willing public. Notre Dame says Te’o is completely a victim in this. If so, why hasn’t he held a news conference and answered questions about it?

That famous home run chase of 1998 between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa? It was once the feel-good story that supposedly saved baseball. And then it felt awful, all of us sucked in by those long, steroid-fueled bombs.

The famous jersey scene in the movie “Rudy,” where his teammates each come and lay down their jersey in front of Notre Dame coach Dan Devine, saying they want Rudy to play? It never happened. Filmmakers just threw it in to give the movie that extra emotional punch.

Adolf Hitler snubbed Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics after he won all those gold medals, right?

No. It’s a myth. “At first,” according to the authors of The Complete Book of the Olympics, “Owens denied it had happened and insisted that he had been treated well by all Germans. But the persistence of the Hitler snub story was so great that Jesse finally stopped denying it and actually incorporated it into his speeches.”

Over and over, this happens in sports. Babe Ruth’s womanizing was kept a secret by journalists. David Thompson couldn’t actually jump to the top of the backboard and replace a quarter with two dimes and a nickel. Tiger Woods did not have an idyllic family life.

Sports and myth are so intertwined so often that it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Celebrity sports figures literally and figuratively seem larger than life, filling up our huge HD televisions with remarkable athletic feats we can only imagine.

Just because they are so good at one thing, though, doesn’t mean they are good at the rest of life. They are flawed, just like all of us. They keep secrets, just like we do. They perpetuate myths – as Te’o apparently did at least twice in interviews, even after he knew his online “dead” girlfriend was still alive and not what she seemed – because not to do so would embarrass them.

The media is too often complicit in this. How was it that only sports website Deadspin.com uncovered the myth of the dead girlfriend, which was published in numerous publications without adequate fact-checking?

In part because sometimes when the story sounds great, reporters don’t look closely enough under the rug. I’ve certainly been guilty of that.

I steer away from using the word “hero” now to describe an athlete in all my sports columns, because it can come back to bite you. And athletes aren’t the true heroes anyway. Soldiers are. Police officers are. Teachers are. Not those who play a game well.

Even the fabled sportswriter Red Smith, one of the most famous of our breed, was told by his own sports editor at The New York Times to stop “godding up” the ballplayers – making them appear to be more like deities than humans.

But lots of people want a fairytale. And so a lot of times the parts that don’t fit into that narrative get left out. As Armstrong said: “This story was so perfect for so long. It’s this myth, this perfect story, and it wasn’t true.”

Let it be a lesson to all of us, remembered from something your mother probably told you long ago:

Tell the truth. Always. Even when it’s inconvenient.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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