Monday, January 21, 2013
Too Good To Be True
I guess everybody's heard enough about Lance Armstrong to last a lifetime, and about Manti T'eo too. I'm still haunted by both their stories and by the media attention, which to a certain degree was the story in both cases.
I don't pay any attention to sports because I think they are a negative force in American society. I'm one of those scolds who thinks way too much importance is placed on athletics and athletes, and, well, if our gladiators have to take performance-enhancing drugs to achieve the fame they seek, their admirers should be aware of that by now. And if one of them believes a made-up online girl is the love of his life, that's probably because he might have never had much of a life outside the big game.
In the case of Armstrong, not many Americans paid much more attention to the Tour de France than I did until he came along. He carefully crafted the image of guy-who-has-it-all while in reality behind the scenes was a nasty piece of work and had very little going for him. Prevailing in his bout with cancer may have been the only real thing he did, and his fund-raising foundation, while clearly a good way for him to shelter some of his fortune, achieved millions for a worthy cause--but that was likely an afterthought put in place by business advisers. It does not make him a philanthropist.
The troubling thing about his interview with Oprah Winfrey was his flat affect, his apparent indifference to the magnitude of his deception, and his clarity about his intention to appear to be a normal human being, maybe even a good one underneath. He failed at that and I'm sure he hates to fail. He may end up suing Oprah for defamation of character. As usual, I admired Ms. Winfrey for her direct, non-judgmental hits, just asking probing questions as she tried to make some sense of his version of things.
At first I thought of Manti Te'o as some kind of Li'l Abner type--a big bruiser with a heart of gold and the brain the size of an English pea. Now it becomes clear that he was let in on the prank before he revealed it and may have been more of a participant than he claims. At any rate it was a silly-season kind of joke, if that's what it was, and apparently will have no lasting negative pull on his career as a football player.
Back to the performance-enhancing drugs. I don't understand why people are so up in arms about this. As far as I can tell, sports fans want to win and they want it so much this obsession clouds their vision. Sports are not about what we call "good sportsmanship," if indeed they ever were. They are about winning. Baseball players, runners, everybody in competitive sports takes them, and they work. Whether the Baseball Hall of Fame honors them or not, today's baseball players rack up more home runs than the former all-time greats ever did, and they do it every season. Like Armstrong--a cyclist nobody ever spotted as special--who won one Tour de France after another, they know that winning is the only thing, and that there is a short cut to doing it. Why are the fans surprised, much less betrayed? Did they not think of this? If not, why not?
We pay these brutes millions and millions of dollars every year. We want to see them win and we'd like to think they're not the kind of guys who run dogfight rings on the side. But we know that most of them will do anything to stay on top in their field, and that usually means they have to have a little pharmaceutical help to do so. Nobody forces them to take drugs (well, Armstrong did what he could to coerce his teammates to, and did what he could to ruin them if they told the truth about him, but he is an extreme case). The fans are the ones who want to see those high scores, those high batting averages, those bloated muscles. It's not news that drugs are a part of the scene. What would be so outrageous about taking steps to legalize these essential substances?
Would that not make sports fans relax a bit and continue to worship these physical specimens of unreal looks and ability? Their feet would look less clay-like if we just admitted it at the outset.