'Tis in vain to find fault with those arts of deceiving wherein men find pleasure to be deceived.
This is an article from the Jan. 28, 2013 issue
Given the rules and routines, the dictatorial coaches, the stark numbers declaring daily who won and lost, it's no wonder sports is so often seen as some easily grasped bastion of convention. But, in truth, no industry processes the surreal better. The fastest man in the world is named Bolt: What are the odds? A man named World Peace plays for a team celebrating lakes in a city not known for them: Did Dali dream that up? Yet such things always stop seeming weird sooner than they should—about as soon, in fact, as play begins. Sports fans are conditioned. We'll roll with just about anything.
But maybe there are limits. Like nothing in recent memory, last week's parade of duplicity tested our tolerance for the mind-bending mysteries of human behavior. Down the rabbit hole we went, accompanied by Oprah and—oh, yes—a media pack smarting with humiliation, into a bizarro world populated by con men, dopers, true believers and the hordes of Touchdown Jesus. What was real? What was fake? What were we supposed to believe? Amid the swirl of rumor and recrimination, the parsing of motive and manner, the fast-moving revelations that showed one day's angelic truth to be another's bald-faced lie, the only solid emergent fact was that, suddenly, two massive frauds stood more fully exposed.
First up, Notre Dame senior linebacker and Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te'o. Choose a take: Best case, the soon-to-be 22-year-old from Oahu, Hawaii, was the pathetic dupe of an elaborate Internet scam that deluded him into describing to family and one media outlet after another, including SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, his tragically doomed, roughly yearlong "relationship" with a woman who never existed. That Te'o's tale was first flagged on Twitter and then punched full of holes on Jan. 16 by Deadspin only reinforced the scandal as a paradigm shift: courtship, loss, betrayal and takedown in the computer age. "I was fully committed to someone who is not real, ..." Te'o told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap last Friday. "I wasn't faking it."
Notre Dame officials, after a three-day investigation, remain convinced that Te'o was a victim, and at week's end there was little to suggest that he was—by commission, anyway—an attention hound looking to boost his Heisman prospects and future marketability. So today's worst case: Te'o is a weak and oddly-wired soul who, upon learning on Dec. 6 that the girlfriend who "died" of leukemia in September might be fake, continued recycling the fable to credulous reporters because—ready?—his father might get mad. Manti told ESPN that after he first lied to his dad, Brian, about meeting up with "Lennay Kekua" last year, he had no choice but to lie to everyone else.
"That goes back to what I did with my dad," Te'o said. "I knew that. I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn't meet.... So I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, Yeah, he met her before she passed away."
Taken alone, the curious case of Manti Te'o—flush as it is with mystery, love, monstrous cruelty, Samoan family values, not to mention the shattering of the latest Fighting Irish football legend—could provide content enough to fill Oprah's dance card for a year. But then last week Winfrey, who famously filleted best-selling author James Frey for fabricating the account of his life in A Million Little Pieces, already had her hands full.
The fall of Lance Armstrong, precipitated as it was by dogged investigators—journalists such as The Sunday Times's David Walsh in London; federal officials; and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency operatives who gathered, one by one, 11 of Armstrong's former teammates to testify to his drug use in the USADA report that resulted in the stripping, in October, of his seven Tour de France titles—was old school in the extreme. Cornered by Winfrey for 2½ hours (in a two-part show that ran last Thursday and Friday), Armstrong apologized for the myriad ways he had lied to the public, bullied, and often tried to destroy anyone who dared cross him. He also admitted to a doping regimen—cortisone, EPO, transfusions, the works—that began in the mid-1990s and powered him through all seven Tour wins. It was a classic TV takedown. Throw in a trail of cigarette smoke, and Edward R. Murrow would have felt at home.
But the Armstrong mea culpa was, in its own way, as postmodern an operation as the Catfish ploy that initially snagged Te'o (page 55). "Look at this arrogant prick," Armstrong said when presented by Oprah with one of a series of clips of himself denying, under oath, the use of performance-enhancing drugs. You'd never hear Joseph McCarthy or Bill Clinton so glibly dissecting their own image; the disgraced used to be the last to know how they came off. But Armstrong was never just a top cyclist trying to win races. He was a master of his own narrative and understood long before anyone else that the public, the fans and the media had a soft spot he could probe and tickle with impunity.
"This story was perfect for so long," he said last week. "You overcome the disease, you win the Tour de France seven times.... I mean, it's just this mythic, perfect story—and it wasn't true."
The original Te'o story was perfect too. It had everything: a senior bypassing the NFL draft to come back to lead his team, Notre Dame's return to prominence, a chaste relationship in a world of unrelenting sex scandal. Best of all, it had Te'o's inspirational girlfriend, the one who'd been hit by a drunk driver only to later find she had leukemia. In a Sept. 23 interview Te'o described in detail for SI's Pete Thamel how many times he'd stay up all night, long-distance, on the phone with "Kekua," using their love to fight the disease. It was his voice, his words, Te'o told SI, that once brought her back from the grave.
That the Armstrong and Te'o narratives ran aground simultaneously, making fools indeed of anyone who ever "believed" in them, or sold a magazine or a block of commercial time to wrap around their deeds and "brand," only underlined the larger question: Weren't we supposed to know better? There are quotation marks around those words because this is an era of savage spin and quicksilver information and "handlers" on call, and a new generation has learned to assume the ironic pose as a kind of armor. Of course Lance made his first confession to Oprah. She's the first station—we say with a knowing nod—of the media cross.
But let's face it: Fear of death cracks that armor. Fear of death dissolves our defenses. And it's no coincidence that each fraud employed cancer as a featured player. We are a pink-ribbon nation. There's almost no one over the age of 25 who has not been touched in some way by the disease, or known a friend or relation who faced its ravages. Skin, lung, breast, prostate, colon, pancreatic, brain: Mention any cancer and it stops the conversation cold. Cancer is rot, the ultimate loss; cancer is the opposite of sports, with its glorification of young, strong bodies. Any collision of the two has long proved irresistible.
In 1954 colorectal-cancer victim Babe Didrikson Zaharias won golf's U.S. Women's Open wearing a colostomy bag, and what was once considered a private matter became fair game. Brian's Song, a 1971 TV movie about cancer-stricken running back Brian Piccolo and his Bears teammate Gale Sayers, cemented the trope into American pop culture, and stories about athletes "inspired" or "learning a new perspective" from a suffering intimate themselves soon became as familiar—and ripe for parody—as any other comeback device.
"Your brother losing a leg in a tragic bass-fishing accident," TV interviewer Roy Firestone, trying to make fictional wide receiver Rod Tidwell cry, intoned in 1996's Jerry Maguire. We all laughed, sure we'd grown beyond such manipulation. But in October of that year, Armstrong was discovered to have testicular cancer that would spread to his brain and lungs. He was given a less than 40% chance of survival, came back and later won the Tour de France a record seven times; he upped the narrative ante. Armstrong didn't just survive cancer: He got stronger, faster. Then he ran the entire cancer playbook more meticulously, more ruthlessly, more successfully than anyone has even thought to try.
This is to his credit—we think. After all, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, begun in 1997, is commonly said to have raised nearly $500 million for "cancer awareness." Advocates worldwide have praised him for his work, and testimonials from cancer survivors about how Lance—always Lance—inspired them are legion (POINT AFTER). "He was one of us," says former major league first baseman and outfielder John Kruk, who received a testicular cancer diagnosis in 1994. "He was us." Cancer made Armstrong different, gave him heft. For his operatives and allies it also provided absurdly durable cover from the storm battering his sport.
"My favorite aunt died of leukemia years ago," Mike Anderson, Armstrong's former mechanic and personal assistant, told SI. "I lost friends over it because they can't separate Lance the cancer fighter from Lance the actual person, and that was done purposely. They threw up that cancer shield to defend him."
But, Anderson says, "it was a cancer weapon" too. As Winfrey showed, even under oath Armstrong used his illness and good work as a bludgeon on critics, used the faith of his near-religious following as prima facie evidence that he couldn't be a cheat, used our collective fear of cancer as a way to maintain his good will from the public long after it should have drained away. He had been doping, he admitted last week, when he taunted doubters from the winning podium in Paris in 2005: "I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles."
Because—and Armstrong knew this—we need to believe. Those of us with cancer in our family history? Those of us with fathers dead too soon, or mothers assaulted year after year by a new form? Those of us who received a text—even as we now type—that another friend has received a diagnosis? Even though we now know the totality of his fraud, a small kernel of Darwinian, animal-to-animal respect remains. Because he lived. Because he beat the beast. It's why, no matter how many times "Lance" calls his former ruthless, doping self "sick" on TV, no matter that he now stares forever from the cage of his disgrace, many cancer patients will never—as much as they might want to—be able to repudiate him fully.
"Thank God they struck him from the records of seven Tours de France: That's the way it should be," Kruk says. "But it's such a difficult thing for me, because he's done great things for cancer. If he were just Lance Armstrong, an average cyclist, would Nike have said, We'll back you and get involved in Livestrong? Who knows what would've happened with his foundation if he'd never won a Tour de France?"
It's clear such questions fortify Armstrong even now. Where once he used cancer to show his good side, now he's using it to explain the bad. When he was diagnosed, "that turned me into a fighter, ..." Armstrong told Winfrey. "I would do anything to survive. I took that attitude—win at all costs—to cycling. That's bad. I was taking drugs before that, but I wasn't a bully [until then]."
That seeming self-flagellation would have been notable, if it wasn't also accompanied by Armstrong's continued defense of banned PED dispenser Michele Ferrari; his high-handed refusal to name coconspirators; his denial, despite heavy USADA evidence, of the use of PEDs during his comeback in 2009 and '10. Indeed, Armstrong's 10-plus-year taped record of attacks and eloquent lies has been so well-documented at this point that, even at the ultimate Oprah moment—what would be with any other subject the interview's most treasured "get"—we couldn't be sure what we were watching.
So when Armstrong broke down as he spoke of the time in December when he first told his 13-year-old son, Luke, that he had always been a cheater, the response he evoked was, yes, surreal. There were the moist eyes and thickening voice, the humiliating reveal of a hero dad debased before his first-born son, the wrenching money quote. ("I told Luke: Don't defend me anymore. Don't.") Everything on screen felt right. In your gut you knew he was telling the truth. Yet you couldn't help it. The lies had been so total, for so long. You could feel the sneer forming: Really? And over the Christmas holidays, no less? Are we certain Lance Armstrong even has a 13-year-old son?
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED put Manti Te'o on a regional cover of its Oct. 1 edition, under the headline THE FULL MANTI. It's not DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN, but it's not good. Journalism, too, has its staid conventions: You get it right or you don't, and anything in between doesn't much matter. The magazine has been fooled before—Armstrong was named its Sportsman of the Year in 2002, after all—and for those who see here some rough justice for SI's 1985 April Fools hoax, Sidd Finch, well, enjoy.
Such a lapse is hardly mitigated by the fact that—even without any record to corroborate Kekua's hospitalization or death—the South Bend Tribune, The New York Times, the New York Post, The Boston Globe, Associated Press, ESPN, CBS and NBC all published accounts or referenced Te'o's stirring tale. A famous quote once declared that writers are always "selling somebody out," but that's more means than end. Journalists all want a story to tell—to have, if only for a moment, everyone in the room turning their way. Cancer makes that easy. Cancer makes suckers of us all.
"I have my own stuff for leukemia," Te'o told ESPN last week. Not only did he lose both grandfathers to the disease, he said, but also Te'o's best friend's mom is a cancer survivor. He described once handing the phone to the woman and watching her talk with whoever was pretending to be Kekua. "The conversation was all cancer lingo," Te'o said, and his "girlfriend" knew all "the right things to say about cancer. Talking about semesters, trimesters, stuff like that I don't know. Only they would know."
The motive for such an elaborate ruse remains hazy. Te'o said an acquaintance, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo (who did not respond to attempts to reach him), spearheaded the hoax with two others, but that, aside from one vague request for his checking account number, no one involved approached him for money. After receiving a call from the presumed-dead Kekua on Dec. 6, Te'o said that he began to be suspicious, then decided she was indeed alive. If true, his gullibility is astonishing: At least four times after that, up until Notre Dame's loss to Alabama in the Jan. 7 national championship game, Te'o continued to confirm the dead girlfriend story to reporters.
On Dec. 26, Te'o informed Notre Dame officials that Kekua—purportedly on the run from drug dealers now—had resurfaced. An investigation, conducted by the private firm Stroz Friedberg, concluded by Jan. 4 that the entire Kekua family was fictitious, and that Te'o was the victim of a Catfish scheme. Yet, Te'o told ESPN, he still wasn't sure that he'd been duped until Tuiasosopo allegedly apologized to him, via Twitter, on Jan. 16.
Notre Dame took a puzzlingly passive stance throughout, considering its reputation as football's most hallowed—and image-conscious—program. Part of this was because university officials were convinced of Te'o's sincerity. "I've been in this 23 years," Irish coach Brian Kelly said last Friday. "I've heard every excuse and seen every stretch of the truth from the dog-ate-my-homework. There's no question. I've been around 18- to 21-year-olds enough that I know when someone has been hoaxed or duped. That was the case in this instance."
The freakish and—for big-time sports—unprecedented nature of the affair may explain why university officials left it to Te'o's family to decide when to reveal the hoax, didn't dispute any of Manti's public utterances and advised that the matter be kept quiet so as not to distract from the championship game. On Jan. 9, Notre Dame alum Dan Tudesco started an online fund-raising campaign for a cancer research group in memory of Kekua and in honor of Te'o. Last week, one day before the Deadspin story broke, a video feature about the campaign went up on the Notre Dame athletics YouTube channel. That, too, is astonishing.
Or maybe not. A big lie, after all, is like cancer: Nobody knows how to behave when confronted with it for the first time. The only surety is that, once on the move, it can ravage everything in its path. And what's left is a ruin—shards of yellow bracelets and broken belief and emotion betrayed, a million little pieces scattered for good.
SI writers Richard Deitsch, David Epstein, Tim Layden and Pete Thamel offer further insights and insider perspective on the Te'o and Armstrong situations at SI.com/mag