You’ve goT to hand it to Oprah. She has established herself as America’s confessor, which, in a way, makes life easy for her interviewees. Oprah’s not going to absolve you or coddle you. She’s going to raise her eyebrows with majestic skepticism and speak grandly, for the nation. And so the person in her crosshairs — this week, Lance Armstrong — is freed to play his own expected part: the relieved confessee.
That’s how Armstrong tried to present himself for the last two nights, criticizing himself while displaying scant emotion, declaring — unconvincingly — that he’s happier now, with the truth laid bare, than he was when he was winning all those races.
The substance of his confession isn’t really news: He doped for years, lied about it, and vilified anyone who told the truth. That’s why the most instructive thing he said came Thursday night, when he offered a damning explanation of why he did it: not because he wanted to win, not because everyone else was doing it, but because he was too weak to put an end to the story he’d helped create. His was the “perfect” tale, he said, the athlete who beat cancer and went on to win the Tour de France seven times.
“Behind that picture, and behind that story, was momentum,” Armstrong said. “And I lost myself in all that.”
It was a clever statement, because it implicated the rest of us, too. Given the inherent drama of sports — someone will always win, someone will always lose, and victory often comes from behind — it’s odd that we should need more. Why should overcoming obstacles overshadow mere talent and perseverance?
But the hunt for narrative is still what drives the media-league-university-agent-sponsor-industrial complex that is, by now, inextricable from the game itself. Narrative is the reason why Armstrong was able to put cycling on the map. It’s the reason, according to Terry Francona’s upcoming book, that the Red Sox owners — led by a TV producer who understands the nature of entertainment — demanded that their manager win games “in a more exciting fashion.”
And it’s the reason so many people, journalists included, got snookered by the story of Manti Te’o, the University of Notre Dame linebacker whose sad tale of loss, so dramatic in the telling, turns out to have been a fabrication.
Story after story portrayed Te’o as a noble, damaged soul, the guy who played on bravely even though his grandmother and girlfriend had died at around the same time in September. The website Deadspin, through some skilled reporting, uncovered the truth: that this girlfriend, whom Te’o had supposedly talked to only online and by phone, never actually existed.
In the service of damage control, Notre Dame officials are creating a new narrative now, suggesting that this hoax ennobles Te’o even more. In a press conference this week, Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick suggested that Te’o is an innocent man-child, an even more tragic figure than we’d thought.
“The single most trusting human being I’ve ever met will never be able to trust in the same way again in his life,” Swarbrick said. Cue the hankies, once again.
Swarbrick’s story is certainly possible, though the facts are shifting daily; as I write this, it is unclear how much Te’o knew about the hoax. Even if he was truly duped, it seems, he delayed acknowledging the truth — even talked to reporters about a death he knew, by then, hadn’t happened — during the media frenzy surrounding the Bowl Championship Game.
Maybe he can be forgiven; he was young and naive and surrounded by people making money off his talent. But is that nobility or weakness? Just like Armstrong, after all, Te’o had a choice. He could have stopped the train, corrected the record. Instead, faced with the power of the story, he dug in deeper.
Armstrong is spinning his own new narrative now, abetted by our attention: He’s the contrite sinner, searching for redemption, willing to suffer Oprah’s glare to get it.
But what he really told, this week, is the story no one wants to hear: That these athletes, for all of their strength and money-making power — for all of the nobility we confer on them — are no stronger, on the inside, than anybody else.