My mother once said to me that a liar is a thief. She meant that if a person lies to you, then they'd steal anything from you: your money, your heart, your belief.
As we've watched the strange narratives of Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o unfold these past few days, I cannot help but think of what the hyper-competitive worlds of sports and manhood have done to us in America. When I was a youth coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s, the seeds of my life-long love for athletics were planted: I formally played baseball and ran track and cross country, and participated in every other sport one can name in school courtyards or in my neighborhood. Yes, you wanted to win whether we were in an organized setting or if we were kicking it with our homeboys. But equally important to us was the joy of the action itself: being able to express who we were by the way we hit or shot or tossed or kicked one ball or another.
I am not certain when mindless competition and the winning-is-what-matters attitude began to devour American sports and American athletes. But I suspect it parallels the popularity explosion of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Mike Tyson, Joe Montana, Michael Jordan, and other otherworldly figures in the 1980s and 1990s. Because of the growth spurt of media into global multimedia, coupled with revolutionary shifts in technology, suddenly athletes were no longer mere athletes. They had become our heroes, our role models, our leaders, and, heck, our saviors. Where we once looked to political leaders and musical artists to speak to us and for us, the modern American athlete, particularly the males, has now assumed that position. The likes of The Beatles will never be seen again, and does not have to be. Today "The Beatles" are these athletes, with the same gigantic impact as those boys from Liverpool, thanks in part to how they are fed to us as super-human mythologies.
When I think about Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o I think about the consequences of elevating these athletes to cult status. As Armstrong confessed to Oprah Winfrey, his post-cancer cycling career was built on blatant lies. Whether Armstrong is truly sorry or not I do not know, nor am I hear to judge. But what I do think of are the people he duped and otherwise attempted to destroy in one manner or another just to keep his rep. That is manhood gone mad, and so weighted by ridiculous goals and expectations that you would rather cheat and lie than to live an honest day doing the best you can, whether you win or lose. Imagine, for a moment, if Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor, had merely raced in the Tour de France and finished, even it was last? Is that not compelling enough for us?
And then there is this peculiar case of Manti Te'o. I followed his heroic journey throughout Notre Dame's charmed and undefeated regular season. Equally charming is Te'o's life montage: a Samoan American from Hawaii. A scholar-athlete, well-spoken, charismatic; a gentleman, an active and concerned community member. A Mormon with deep spiritual roots. All-American, and the most decorated defensive player in college football history. An automatic first-round draft pick.
But is Manti, like Lance, a liar, making up the existence of a girlfriend who died a mere six hours after his grandmother really died last September? Or was he the victim of an elaborate hoax, as he and Notre Dame officials are claiming? We do not know for sure because he has only made one short statement. Meanwhile, these questions confront him:
Why did Te'o tell reporters before the Heisman Trophy presentation on Dec. 8 that he "lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer," when two days earlier the woman he thought was dead called him on his cell?
Why did Manti tell a Sports Illustrated reporter in October that his girlfriend Lennay Kekua came to one of his games then issue a statement this week stating that he never met her?
Who is now behind one of the Twitter accounts associated with Lennay Kekua, a woman who never lived, let alone died, in September before Te'o played one of the biggest games of the 2012 season?
There is no record of Kekua 's life or death, or her being a Stanford University student, as has been reported. Local and national outlets participated in the hoax, even going so far as quoting Manti's father about the relationship and in-person meetings, and helping to perpetuate a feel-good episode of a gifted athlete playing like an undaunted warrior through the double losses of his grandmother and his girlfriend.
In the case of Lance Armstrong we now know, conclusively, that he is liar and thief. No, we cannot take away the amazing things his foundation, Livestrong, has done for cancer survivors worldwide. But as I watched his Oprah interview I thought of the rationales I've heard about the mafia, or drug dealers in America's ghettos: Yes, they do a lot of bad things and hurt a lot of folks, but look at them giving out turkeys at Thanksgiving, presents at Christmas, or providing other aid for those in need. In other words the ends justify the means has become part and parcel of our culture. That, to me, is borderline insanity.
Beyond this, it is a pathology when someone would go to that extent to fictionalize who he is, to win, to be famous, to be rich, to be powerful. Lance Armstrong's fall, which I do not wish on anyone, is ugly, it is catastrophic. And it was destined to happen.
So now we wonder in the same vein if Manti Te'o, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, a role model to Samoans and Americans of all persuasions, is Lance Armstrong, too? As I finish this blog it is being reported that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the man who has been publicly identified as being behind the Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax, called a church friend in early December with a tearful confession that he was responsible.
But Manti still needs to speak, too, because his words will help to set him free from this media nightmare. Let us hope he handles this in the way we wish Lance Armstrong would have.