“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
— Mark Twain
Many of our greatest athletic champions come from dark, needy places. It’s a Faustian bargain inconvenient to acknowledge: The qualities that empower the truly elite athletes — ruthless drive, narcissistic focus, competitive obsession — are characteristics we’d find repulsive outside athletics. Incandescent in their sports, some of the greatest athletes I’ve ever met and covered are simply pedestrian as human beings.
That’s why the alternative narratives begin to distract from — if not completely paper over — the less savory realities. It usually starts small, ranging from better versions of the truth to outright lies, but legends grow quickly when the tribe of followers counts in the millions.
When Lance Armstrong attempted to explain to Oprah Winfrey why he lied about his use of performance-enhancing drugs for 13 years, his answer was revealing:
“This story was so perfect for so long,” Armstrong said. “I mean that, as I try to take myself out of the situation, and I look at it: You overcome the disease. You win the Tour de France seven times. You have a happy marriage. You have children. . . . It’s just this mythic, perfect story. And it wasn’t true.
“I was a bully in the sense that I tried to control the narrative.”
The past week was a dumpster fire for modern sports myths, and whatever homespun ideals remained of hard work, integrity, sportsmanship and, hell, Internet dating were also engulfed in gigantic flames.
And as we wring our hands over the inadequacies of Armstrong’s confession and the inconsistencies of Manti Te’o’s story — or, years ago, Tiger Woods’s infidelities — we have to acknowledge our role in the mythology. The stories that are too good to be true are the same ones we embrace, and retell, the most. In the 1950s, Hall of Fame basketball coach Clair Bee wrote a series of novels about a high school student named Chip Hilton whose athletic prowess was outshone only by his moral compass. Millions of copies were sold
More than a half-century later, we’re desperate for another Chip Hilton, and we’re angry when we discover our latest candidate just dropped out of Valley Falls High, bummed a smoke and traded his game jersey for a tat.
But what’s the source of that fury — their deception or our own gullibility? Before cursing what Armstrong’s bald-face lying, Te’o’s extreme naivete (at the least) or Woods’s duplicity did to you, ask yourself: What were you expecting?
Combine that insatiable appetite for folklore with the consuming desire to be the hero, and you end up with a cancer survivor believing syringes and blood transfusions are no different than “air in our tires and water in our bottles.” You get a college linebacker waxing nostalgic about the beauty of a girlfriend who didn’t exist, the first known Internet hoax to have a game ball dedicated to “her” posthumously by the coach of Notre Dame. And you get an adoring audience that misses all the red flags, mostly because it doesn’t want to see them.
“We do go into denial when it’s our guy — that’s that inner need for a hero,” said Ronald Kamm, a sports psychiatrist and the director of Sport Psychiatry Associates in Oakhurst, N.J. “Subconsciously we’re all looking for that superhero in sports because so few people live up to those expectations.
“Even when the story of Lance’s admission dies down, if someone has a great season or career year — especially if it’s for our team — then the process of believing all the good starts over again. When what we should be doing is continuing to tell our kids that some of them are not people whose actions off the field they should be emulating.”
It’s about time we accept that character in sports is often driven by winning, that we ascribe virtues to some of our athletic heroes that they really don’t have, that many may never acquire. It’s no more sensible to expect our athletic champions to also be good-natured than it is to expect the helpful neighbor to also run a 4.4. That’s not to say neither can happen, but don’t be shocked when it doesn’t.
The good thing about this past week is that some of us former believers get to stop walking hand-in-hand with our mythic sports heroes and accept them for who they are. Let us watch sports to witness feats of physical greatness, but let’s seek virtue where it’s most present: in the selfless lives of social workers, teachers and counselors.
And, in turn, our sports stars hopefully will learn there is more power and strength in surrendering to the truth than trying so hard to live that Chip Hilton narrative that never fit in the first place, the one we wrongly gave them simply because they won.
If public disgrace does anything, here’s hoping it helps Armstrong and others meet their more authentic self. He needs to know that authentic narratives are written through actions, not outside of them. He needs to know what one man said to another man who had hit bottom long ago:
“You don’t have to believe in religion, church — you don’t even have to believe in God. You just have to understand you’re not Him.”
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.