Lance’s and Manti’s and Athlete Idolatry – Oh My!

What a week. Athlete idolatry at its finest.

I’ve gotten emails from friends (yes, friends, but friends who happen to enjoy giving me a lot of shit) this week about the Manti Te’o story which I know everyone has heard about by now. One friend – “Jon R. from Maine” – sent me a seemingly serious email (until I opened the email, that is) saying that it had been a while since we connected, that he had met a girl he was quite serious about, met online, that she was smart and pretty, that he was head over heels in love, was hoping to meet her in person some day and….well, you can guess where the email went after that. Ha, ha. It was doubly funny for me because I met my wife online, and Jon R. knew that. But my wife does exist. Really. Honest.

In a week where Lance Armstrong sat with Oprah and confessed what a liar he is/was, we had a major publicity scandal break at my beloved alma mater related to one of the most celebrated athletes – until now – to perhaps put on a uniform at Notre Dame.

The faint-of-heart sports fan need not apply for this week.

My wife asked me, after the Te’o story broke, what I thought. I couldn’t answer. I just couldn’t. I didn’t know how to express my feelings because my feelings weren’t feelings, they were questions. Was he complicit? Was he a victim? Was he living a lie? Were WE – as fans – living a lie? All I could think about was when I was a student there and if the situation was the same whether I would have been one of the ones in the crowd chanting “Man-ti…Man-ti” and wearing a Hawaiian lei.

I still can’t answer those questions, and I don’t think I will ever be able to. Who knows, right?

Here’s what I do know:

The problem is us. You, me, and every other person not on a TV screen every week. The problem stems from the way some of us seemingly idolize regular people who happen to possess an extraordinary talent. Let me explain.

I would be willing to bet that at some point in your life, you were told that you were “great” at something. Even though “great” is a relative term, that greatness could have been in high school football, it could have been coaching, it could have been teaching, it could have been running a business, or maybe politics. Whatever the “it” was, when you’re deemed by people to be really good or extraordinary, you attract attention. You are the center of the universe. Now, that universe could be the entire world impacting millions (hello Lance, look over here) or it could be within the confines of a group of 10 people. It doesn’t matter. Greatness tugs at the ego. Which is not, by the way, a bad thing at all. Heck, I know there have been times in my life where I wanted to be “the man” and enjoyed the successes I worked hard to get. Adoration is what we like to strive for, but it can become an addiction too. Probably 7 of the top 10 moments in my life came in competition that yielded an “atta boy” from other people.

The question is what you do with success once you have it. And too often, especially on a grand scale, those who have success don’t use it very wisely. But is the problem them…or us?

Charles Barkley, the legendary basketball player once said, “I am not a role model.” I remember the day that interview came out, and people were genuinely pissed off! They were mad that Charles said that. He told people that their parents and people they came into contact with personally every day were responsible for being role models. The outrage at the time, I remember! An NBA player who asked us rhetorically “I’m a great basketball player, why are you demanding me to be more than that?”

It was probably the smartest thing Chuckwagon has ever uttered. Guess why? He sure set the right expectations. And when he had a huge gambling addiction after that, it didn’t become a national scandal. People weren’t disappointed or didn’t feel “duped”; they felt for him because he was a real person with real issues, and he became a lovable figure.

What he did without even knowing it? He helped US by saying “don’t look at me as an idol, you’ll be disappointed. I’m insanely good at basketball. But don’t make me something I’m not.”

The common thread in every major sports scandal that I can remember is idolatry. The adoration of dozens, hundreds, thousands and millions. The bigger the idol, the bigger the fall from grace. It’s a slippery slope though, right? We all want to be good at what we do. We want people to like us. We want people to say “wow, you’re really good at this”. But then what?

I will throw some names out at you, and I want you to think of the very first word that comes to mind:

Barry Bonds

Marion Jones

Tiger Woods

Kobe Bryant

Roger Clemens

Lance Armstrong

Joe Paterno

Bobby Petrino

John Edwards

Anthony Weiner

Elliot Spitzer

This list includes some of the best and most celebrated athletes, coaches and politicians in the last 5-10 years. They were major over-achievers. They broke records. They did a lot of GOOD. Yet, I’d be willing to bet your first thoughts about each of them were negative. Words like “cheater” probably came to mind.

Is that fair? I don’t know. They weren’t all actually confirmed as cheaters, but the court of public opinion says it is so. The common theme is that they were all beloved and all idolized.

They welcomed the adoration, sure.

But we gave it to them.

At some point, you have to think that the ego is so deep and so intense that keeping that “high” would be front and center for anyone idolized to that extent. The question is…

Why do WE – people like you and me – keep idolizing these people for things they’re not? Because they do one or a few things better than 99.9% of the world, and we’re fascinated by that? Because the media is so intense that they make us idolize these people by a constant barrage of coverage? Because we’re so unsatisfied with ourselves that we want to put others on a pedestal hoping for some kind of mind-meld? Again, I don’t know. I don’t know why. I just know that we do this a lot. We’re all searching for the “next big thing” in sports so that we can hold them in higher regard than we do ourselves. Because we do it all the time. Most of us look at others to fill some kind of void, but why?

With the social media era, or the “transparency” era I suppose, are real honest-to-goodness heroes in sports or business or celebrity or politics extinct? Are these the same hero’s that existed in the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s only with much more scrutiny and access to the public than ever before?

Is it all Twitter’s fault?

I tried to think of someone in sports who is transcendent and hasn’t had any major public relations issue come to pass (yet). As you know, tennis is close to my heart and I immediately thought about Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Well, Nadal already has had to answer rumors about supposed performance-enhancing drug issues, so who knows there. Roger? Nothing (yet). But it’s sad that I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Nothing is sacred. Roger, I hope you’re clean. If not, then I’m waiving the white flag and completely give up. How about golf? Well, Tiger you’re familiar with I’m sure. What about Mickelson? Well, he’s always had to answer questions of infidelity stemming from rumors and for being a pompous jerk. On the surface, he’s a great guy who stays much longer than other pros to sign autographs for fans. Who knows?!? I mean, really, who the hell knows. I look at Phil as a great golfer, but not a role model. I don’t know the guy!

I feel like we’re all taking crazy pills and that these scandals are all our fault because we 1) like to believe the best in people – which is good, and we should – and 2) like to believe that people who excel in something – one thing – somehow have the magical key to life which transcends EVERY area of life. It does not mean we can’t hold others up to a high standard. It does mean that with every fan or Twitter follower or article or TV interview, those standards become lower and lower for the athlete/politician/subject involved. They have to work less hard to earn our trust, respect and admiration. And that’s disastrous. If you’re constantly told by millions that you’re awesome, don’t you have to work less hard to be awesome? I’m sure that creeps into play.

I will ask this question again as a parting thought…is the problem the athletes who continually cheat or fail to live up to our lofty standards?

Or is the problem us, who continually idolize these people too much and fan the flames of celebrity to a degree that ultimately is a recipe for letdown?

I don’t know the scientific answer. But you can guess which way I’m leaning. They’re people, people. People with a great God-given talent. And that’s it. And that’s all it should be.

(Enter Charles Barkley saying “I told you so.”)