01/17/2013 12:22 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

The Greatest Lie in Sports Is the One We Tell Ourselves


Let's be blunt: one way or another Manti Te'o is lying. Or at the very least, he's not being truthful. He might ask us to believe he was too proud to admit he'd been duped, lying or misleading only to protect himself from embarrassment. That's excusable, right? Then again, this might well run deeper than that -- an ocean of murky hidden truths only beginning to be mined.

But really, it doesn't matter. Regardless of how this plays out, Te'o has already joined a growing collection of liars in sports. Hell, a "Thank You" card is likely already in the mail from Lance Armstrong, whose admission of a 10-year-long screwjob of the entire U.S. populace is presently tumbling lower and lower down the front page. Though perhaps a certain part of that megalomaniac is angry that his spotlight is being shared. He really has crowned himself king of this shit-stinking mountain over the past year, hasn't he?

In both cases, and all episodes of America's new favorite reality show: Lying Athletes Exposed, the truth is excruciatingly slow to reveal itself. In some (ahem, Tiger) we've basically accepted that we'll only ever know the half of it. All too often, the fans, the media, and the leagues all play this game of stop-and-go disbelief. We get shocked, we ask how this could happen, we wring our hands as we swallow whatever version of the story maintains the sanctity of the game, then we get back to cheering on our teams until the next lie is exposed, the next girl comes forward, the next test result comes back dirty. That round-and-round refusal to accept reality never being more apparent than in State College, Pennsylvania, over the past several decades.

In the end, the questions are always asked of the athletes. "How could Marion Jones cheat?" "Why won't Barry Bonds admit it already?" "How could Brett Favre have expected to get away with that?" "Did O.J." -- actually, let's not go down that road. But lately the bigger question seems to be: "Why does this keep happening?" That's a inquiry better suited for all of us on the other side of the microphone -- the media, the parents, the fans, the little league coaches. What part do we play in all of this? You would think that Jerry Sandusky would have been enough to force us all to call a collective timeout and regather our thoughts about the significance of sports in our culture and the terrifying behavior that's capable of soliciting. Yet here we are, a year later, asking two athletes on the same day: "How could you have lied to us?"

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbick called Manti Te'o "a victim in this case," and in a certain respect he might be right. Whether the Heisman runner-up tried to spare himself embarrassment or fabricated this entire ordeal from the start, it appears very clear that his image is at the center of this story. The storyline for every major sports controversy of the past decade reads the same: nation places athlete on pedestal, athlete makes mistake, athlete lies to protect position on that pedestal, athlete is exposed not only for original mistake, but subsequent lies told to cover up that mistake. (In Armstrong's case, add a healthy dose of doubling down, mixed with a dash of "everybody's out to get me.") Doesn't the universality of that simple formula suggest an underlying issue?

If sports are important to us, then sports must be important. That's the logical fallacy that defines our relationship with these games. It's in ESPN's economic interest that sports remain important, and it's in your co-worker's emotional interest that sports remain important. In our minds, that false sense of significance makes it okay that we scream our heads off when our team scores or lock ourselves in the basement when it loses.

There's a clear causality between our excusing idolization of athletes and our idolized athletes excusing their immoral behavior to protect that hyperinflated status. Acknowledging this reality is the first step toward establishing a better relationship with these games that still allows room for our kids to love soccer and our neighbor to love the Packers without the danger of another Penn State scandal.

We need to make it okay for sports to still be important to us without being important in-and-of themselves. The athletes that we admire can still be super humans without being superhuman. The entire institution would be better off with a steady stream of little mistakes than this current spate of gigantic bombshells.

Sports are all about getting us to believe anything is possible. So why not this?