Sports are filled with lies -- good and bad

Thursday June 13th, 2013

For years Pete Rose lied about betting on baseball before finally coming clean in 2004.
Water Iooss Jr. /SI

When baseball's most recent PED scandal broke, I was alone in a car, driving 27 hours round-trip between Hartford and Cincinnati over two-and-a-half days, leaving me nothing but time and solitude to reflect on the most famous lies of my lifetime.

From "I am not a crook" to "Read my lips: no new taxes" to "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," I turned an endless stretch of Interstate 90 into a nostalgic stroll down Bulls--- Lane.

Some of those lies were big: Think of the seven tobacco company executives saying "Nicotine is not addictive" while testifying before Congress, the same setting in which baseball players denied steroid use before that very body -- a body renowned for its own public prevarication.

Other lies were small, inconsequential, see-through. That 1985 print campaign for New Coke -- "The Best Just Got Better!" -- can be excused as advertising. (Want a Coke with that whopper?) Nobody is expected to believe it. Others might say the same about the investment returns of 13 to 20 percent promised by Bernie Madoff. They're like the weight-loss promises you're getting spammed with at this very moment.

Over time, this public current of lies -- big and small, of great and minor consequence -- wears us smooth, until we no longer notice the never ending stream of hogwash passing over us at every waking moment.

Those of us who follow sports are not lied to more often than those in other endeavors, but the lies we're told are more prominent, and they somehow seem more permanent. We're not likely to forget Pete Rose announcing, on the day he was banned from the game he dominated: "Despite what the commissioner said today, I didn't bet on baseball." (He did.)

Or, on an entirely different scale, O.J. Simpson declaring after his double-murder acquittal in 1995: "When things have settled down a bit I will pursue as my primary goal in life the killer or killers who slaughtered Nicole and Mr. Goldman." (He didn't.)

That was 1995 and by then, of course, I was old enough to know better. A year before, Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell had said: "I'm not about to rape this city as others in this league and others have done ...You'll never hear me say, 'If I don't get this I'm moving. You can go to press on that one. I couldn't live with myself if I did that." And then he moved the Browns to Baltimore.

On and on it went: The baseball steroid denials of the '90s giving way to the Olympic steroid denials of the Noughties. Sprinter Marion Jones was asked in 2003 if she had used performance-enhancing drugs. "I answered that I had not," she recalled before a judge four years later. "This was a lie, your honor."

That was 2007, the year Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban said, "I am not going to be the Alabama coach," two weeks before he became the Alabama coach. By then, it was difficult to distinguish between Whoppers and Whopper Juniors. They all tasted the same. Big lies or small, they made up our daily diet of baloney.

By the time Lance Armstrong told Oprah Winfrey this year that his "mythic, perfect story" -- much of his adult life, in other words -- was "one big lie," I was protected by a thick armadillo's armor of skepticism.

And yet there remain some sports lies that I embrace, not least all those little deceptions that make the games possible in the first place, for what is an onside kick, or a fake punt, or a pickoff attempt if not an effort to pull the wool over someone's eyes?

Then there are all those lies so familiar they've become clichés, punch lines that nobody believes anymore, including the speaker, ready-made phrases like "It's not about the money" and "I want to spend more time with my family" and "You guys are the best fans in the world." These are the sports equivalents of "Your call is important to us," a little insincerity to pass the time.

Injury reports are a litany of lies, mostly harmless, as are so many of the things we tell ourselves on a daily basis, from "I was a total geek in high school" (swimsuit models, mainly) to "I was not a total geek in high school" (sportswriters, mostly). Whenever I hear an athlete say, as so many have done during the NBA and NHL postseasons, "We have nothing but respect for those guys," I think it's nice of them to lie like that.

Those lies make the world, and the world of sports, a better and more civil place. And so we should acknowledge what golfers already know: There are good lies and there are bad lies. And no two lies are exactly alike.

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