True Lies

Associated Press

Associated Press

I’m sitting in the NFL Media News Room as I type this, a few days removed from one of the greatest weekends in NFL history.  This weekend, two more games will determine the participants in America’s biggest sporting event.  Right now, though, there’s not a whole lot of talk about either.  We’re too busy talking about bicycling and fake people with leukaemia.  In broader terms, of course, we’re really talking about lying.  Ironic, then, we’re not talking about what might be the sports week’s most damaging lie: the one told by the new head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

We can, will, and already have speculated plenty on the truth behind the Hawaiian-born Irish linebacker and the Texas-bred biker with the artificially strong appendages.  Maybe Manti Te’o is telling the truth.  Maybe he’s the victim of an elaborate, mean-spirited hoax.  If that’s the case, though, he’s wilfully defining himself as a very large man with the emotional and intellectual capacity of an 11-year-old boy.  Maybe Te’o knew what he was doing, orchestrating the macabre story for PR purposes, or maybe he wanted to cover up something else about his personal life.  Whatever the case, the integrity of Notre Dame is ultimately more likely to suffer than Te’o’s professional football career.  If you doubt that, I refer you to Ray Lewis, Michael Vick, et al.  As long as your physical skills allow it, we will allow – even embrace – your triumphant comeback.  We just want something in return, like a championship or two.  Quid pro quo.

Which brings me to Lance Armstrong, the ex-American hero who duped a nation that loves winning more than it cares who’s actually doing the winning.  What we don’t like, however, is feeling like suckers.  It’s not the PEDs we care about, it’s the dishonesty.  We hate Bonds, A-Rod, Sosa and McGwire, but don’t bat an eye at Jason Giambi or Andy Pettitte.  Why?  ‘Cause the latter two fessed up.  And now, so too has Armstrong.  Unfortunately for him, he waited too long.  Absolution is no longer an option.  He’s too old for a comeback.  Kobe Bryant was a pariah after his confession.  Now he’s in roughly 50% of the ads you see when watching a basketball game.  Why?  Because his age and talent (and to a lesser degree, his perpetually deferential teammates) kept him around long enough for a title or three.  Tiger Woods became America’s pariah not for betraying his marital vows, but because he deceived us.   Barely three years later, Tiger is on the road to redemption, but he’ll still need to win a major to get all the way back.  It’s no coincidence we make jokes about JaMarcus Russell but celebrate Ray Lewis.  Ray was good.  JaMarcus… was not.

On the bright side, at least Russell made millions, unlike countless other college football players, whose lives were manipulated to some degree by full-grown adults.  And that’s what’s missing from the giddy coverage of this week’s apocalyptically big (pseudo-) sports stories.

A couple days before Chip Kelly sat in front of a microphone as the Eagles new head coach, he sat in high school kids’ homes and promised their parents he’d turn them into responsible adults.  He told them they’d be well taken care of in Eugene, Oregon, and – if things broke just right – they might one day make it in the NFL.  It’s probably the same speech he gave last year’s recruits, the ones who are now living an uncertain future in the Pacific Northwest instead of living… who knows where?  Southern California?  Florida? We’ll never know if another destination could’ve improved one of those kids’ chances of playing professional football… or finding a different major that was his true calling… or meeting a (preferably real) woman he might one day have married.

What’s that?  You think it’s a reach to conflate Kelly’s lie with those of Armstrong and Te’o?  Well, this isn’t just about Chip Kelly.  It happens every year around this time, all over the country.  The football season ends, the dominoes start falling.  Doug Marrone may be the most popular guy in Buffalo these days – matter of fact, he’s probably still pretty popular among Syracuse alums happy with their rebuilt program – but I’m certain there are Orange players who committed to the school because of Marrone who aren’t as thrilled.  Pete Carroll jumped off USC’s sinking ship and is now a civic hero in Seattle (even more so if he’d just taken the easy field goal in the second quarter last week), but let’s not forget the Trojans players he left behind to navigate the toxic waters by themselves.

[As a sidenote, let’s also be sure to hold up Matt Barkley as a cautionary tale the next time a kid projected to make millions is suckered into returning for the glory of the school.  If their coaches can take the big-money pro jobs – which they ironically are only offered thanks to success of their players – then said players should, too.

Not to diminish the potentially sinister deeds of Armstrong and Te’o, but the damage they’ve done is at best self-inflicted and at worst compartmentalized to a relative other few.  Yes, Notre Dame could suffer, but that’d mean they were complicit in the cover-up.  That, in turn, could negatively impact the players on the team, but again, it’s isolated to that program.  Armstrong ruined lives with his civil suits, but at least his lies led to a foundation that’s raised about half-a-billion dollars to fight cancer.  Conversely, the perennial cancer of coaches using 18-to-22-year-olds to improve their professional standing has no high-profile advocate fighting to cure it.

While I’m at it, let’s discuss the portion of the media that delights in hypocritically throwing stones at the likes of Te’o and Armstrong from their perch high atop Mount Pious.  I’m not talking about reporters like Jay Glazer, Jason LaCanfora, Bert Breer, Jeff Darlington, Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen.  They compete to break the big story.  Whoever wins that race doesn’t matter much to us fans as long as we get the story.

More damaging, however, is the emerging race among “opinion guys” – those talking heads tasked with reacting to the stories their aforementioned peers just broke.  The game has now shifted from trying to make sense of the issues to saying the most outrageous, incendiary thing possible regardless of the veracity behind it.  And that’s a dangerous prospect.

The ethics of being a phony in exchange for attention aren’t exactly the issue here.  Rather, it’s the double standard of the talking heads ripping other people for being disingenuous.  Those guys were bashing Armstrong pretty good this week, but just as players use PEDs to improve their play, isn’t making up opinions in the name of ratings a form of artificiality?  What’s more, it creates – in fact, almost requires – other talking heads to rationalize doing the same thing.

Here’s the danger: every time Skip Bayless says something baseless about a player but gets attention for it, every time Colin Cowherd uses thinly-veiled racism as a ratings’ grab, it encourages guys like Rob Parker to say dumb things about guys like Robert Griffin III.  Parker lost his job for calling RGIII a “cornball brother,” making himself the victim in that case… but in a larger sense, why should Griffin be subjected to such nonsense at all?  Why target John Wall’s upbringing to speculate about what kind of leader he is?  “Issues” like these were conjured out of thin air… and for what, ratings?  Now that’s sinister.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the site on which you’re reading these words engages in a form of what I just described when they devote time and resources to covering the Rex/Tebow/Sanchise melodrama over more germane football stories, but at least there aren’t any victims (besides Jets fans whose self-esteem dips with each bit of news about their team).  It’s the difference between a poke and a punch.

Meantime, baseball writers continue to victimize players of the Steroid Era.  Remember, these writers knew – or at least suspected – players were using PEDs are now punishing the best of those players by denying them entry into the sport’s hall of fame.  Pious?  Absolutely.  Destructive to the sport?  Probably… at least to Cooperstown.  Sorry, there’s just no point to an institution that presents itself as a home for baseball’s best when it doesn’t include the hit king, the homerun king or the best pitcher of the last half century (outside of serving as a shrine for the self-righteous).  However, the writers themselves – who said nothing at the time – get off scot-free.  Why? ‘Cause they’re the judge and jury.

So go ahead, take your shots at Te’o and Armstrong.  I’ve certainly cracked wise at their expense.  Just remember: there might be other bad guys out there, even if the media is too busy making up other stories to care.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll try to scare up a conversation about Colin Kaepernick in the dome or Flacco versus the Pats D.  You know, football.  Those are the kinds of conversations I prefer.  No lie.

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