Just as Aristotle observed that nature abhors a vacuum, so does human nature abhor a coincidence. Random events happening simultaneously bother us. Compulsion is strong to connect dots/pixels until it makes a picture, however irrelevant, but preferably suitable for Instagram. Once resolved, we can return to the TV and “Hoarders.”
This week in sports delivered us a cavalcade of crap in the persons of Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o and Ryan Leaf. At risk of ever more lethal brevity in a 140-character maximum world, here is my summary:
One is a sociopath.
One is an addict.
One is a fool.
For those preferring elaboration: In any workplace, bus or classroom of 40 or more, chances are one or more of each can be identified. But because each of this week’s astonishers is a high-profile athlete, achievers in a realm where aberration is unwelcome, there must be some revelation here. The urge is irresistible to connect their events and circumstances that permit us to say the sports world is sufficiently toxic to drip through seven decks of the spaceship in “Alien.”
Certainly there are things to concern a fan the over seeming out-of-handedness in sports these days. I’m willing to start with 8:30 p.m. tipoffs for Pac-12 Conference basketball games to please its network (speaking of an alien beast growing inside a human host).
That aside, the idea that the coincidence of these athletes’ misdeeds says anything more or less about what most discerning people already have known about sports is silly.
Let’s start with the easy one. Te’o seems to be victim of a cruel prank so lengthy and so mortifying that he didn’t know how to disengage. He liked being a hero and didn’t like being a fool. So rather than make a hard decision, he procrastinated. As loopy as this story is and will be — and I admit to being as familiar with online catfishing as I am with carbon nanotubes — the football player was guilty of being naive and irresponsible. Please join way over there, Manti, the back of a long line of 21-year-olds.
As for the actions or inactions of his school, Notre Dame . . . hey, it’s college football. If you’re looking for integrity, bring an electron microscope.
Leaf’s story is more familiar to most. Especially familiar around here, where he was one of the great figures in Washington State football history brought asunder by drug addiction and an a-hole personality. He blew his easier gig in a rehab center and was sent by Texas prison officials to the big house, where his reputation as a fallen sports stud will not serve him well. It’s a shame. His addiction has made him pathetic.
To the extent that that big-time sports and sports media enabled Te’o and Leaf to avoid accountability for too long, well, guilty as charged. That barely qualifies as news.
The guy who chaps me like a Mojave desert wind is Armstrong. Most galling is that beyond the drugging and thugging he engaged in as cycling’s one-man mob, and the consecutive betrayals he has spread relentlessly across the sports world’s landscape like railroad ties in the Trans-Siberian, he continues to dig himself deeper while attempting to dig out.
There was nothing remotely believable about his nationally televised interviews with the schoolmarmish Oprah, even his second-episode whimpering. Why would anyone believe him now? He engaged for years in a mammoth, systematic and effective campaign of disinformation and intimidation that would make Soviet premiers weep with envy. That pathology does not evaporate with a few afternoons in a PR office and a scold from the national mom.
Through his foundation, his athletic deeds and cloying words, many benefited from Armstrong. I also have read that many Italians cheered Mussolini when he made the trains run on time. It is not that Armstrong was incapable of acts of generosity and grace, it is that he did it for self-aggrandizement. Those he helped battle cancer were, in his craven mind, targets of opportunity wrapped in vulnerability.
If anyone in a fight for life drew strength from the myth of Armstrong, I cheer. Most every person, most every culture, believe in some myths, because myths can sometimes serve as handrails in the maelstrom.
But in this case, the myth is nowhere close to the man. And the man is nowhere close to understanding the distinction. His responses to Oprah’s questions were as calculating, rehearsed and clinical as his deceptions that fooled drug testers, reporters and fans.
Culturally, he has accomplished another improbable feat: He has pulled further apart the floodgates of cynicism, a toxin pouring over American politics and business and now threatens sports.
If you still enjoy sports, please do one thing: Connect no dots among our sports miscreants. Generalizations are psychic death to the many good people still holding to ideals, who remain much greater in number. And make no connection between the myth and Lance Armstrong.