Once upon a time, there was a sportswriter named Mitch. He wrote a story. Not a great one, truth be told. But pretty good. The story was about former Michigan State players Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson, sitting in the stands at the Final Four, cheering on their alma mater, decked out in school clothing; it was about nostalgia and school spirit and growing up and growing old and missing dorm pizzas and somehow going home again, or something like that. It was wholly unobjectionable middlebrow claptrap, maybe even heartwarming. It also was complete bull.
Cleaves and Richardson did not sit in the stands. They did not enter the building. There was no cheering. Mitch made it up, because it sounded nice, like a comforting fable from one of his books, or maybe Parade magazine, and when his hoax was discovered, he was banished to the badlands of sports journalism in deserving disgrace, forced to live out his days and Friday nights squinting at high school football scores in extra-small agate type.
Actually, I made that up … the last part, anyway. Fact is, Mitch Albom was neither banished nor disgraced for violating the cardinal rule of his profession: thou shalt not make s--t up. To the contrary, he was feted with the highest honor in sports journalism, the 2010 Red Smith Award, and his best-selling books filled with comforting fables continued to be best-sellers. The moral of the story? There is no moral. There is no story, really. There’s just some stuff that happened, and then some other stuff, the long arc of the universe bending toward nothing in particular.
Which, of course, is the problem with real life.
Lance Armstrong was a great story. A comforting fable. He whipped cancer. Whipped the Pyrenees. Whipped all comers. Sold us bright yellow bracelets, and made us feel good about ourselves -- like we were really doing something here, guys! -- for wearing them. Manti Te'o was a great story, too. Another comforting fable. Lost his girlfriend, the love of his life, the one he met on a football field, to leukemia. Or was it a car crash? Doesn’t matter. She was gone, but Te'o pressed on, strong and brave, making lots and lots of tackles, overcoming adversity. Just like Armstrong. Just the way we want and need our athletes to be, because if they can do it, maybe we can do it, too, and maybe we’ll even have our own stories to tell, even if we never win the Tour de France or almost win the Heisman Trophy.
At the very least, it’s pretty to think so.
Again, though, there’s this problem. Real life. It has a way of cropping up at the most annoying times, in the most inconvenient ways, unfair and pointless, stubbornly unwilling to conform to our narratives. As in: Armstrong starring in the most retroactively hilarious Nike commercial of all time, an inspirational Cancer Jesus turned voluminously-documented borderline sociopath, the lyingest, dopingest doper in a long line of Pinocchio athletes who probably glow in the dark. See also: the imaginary death of Te'o’s imaginary girlfriend, a woman he never actually met, who may or may not exist only inside (a) the hearts and souls of sports writers and television producers; (b) the innermost depths of the Matrix.
Armstrong appears on Oprah tonight, and tomorrow, and then come the inevitable lawsuits, and after all that, he likely will remain more privileged and wealthy than 99.99 percent of the people on the planet. Te'o almost certainly will play in the National Football League. He could end up a star. He could end up with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Who knows? Whatever happens to either man, there will be no sort of larger lesson, no comfort, just the messy, random business of real life, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” the cause and effect of one day leading to the next.
Given a choice, who wouldn’t prefer stories?
In the classic western film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a newspaper reporter burns his notes, then puts it like this: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Legends are better. They’re a hedge. A hedge against real life. Much like sports. Because sports lend themselves to legends, to stories -- heroes and villains; beginnings and endings; above all, an unambiguous final score -- by purposeful design.
With apologies to every book Rick Pitino and just about every Super Bowl-winning coach have ever written, sports are not a metaphor for the world, nor for how you can better exceed your third-quarter sales targets. They are a model of the way we would like the world to work. They are wish fulfillment. And wishes, like stories, possess a kind of seductive magic. How could Armstrong lie so much, and fool so many people for so long? How could T’eo lie, and perhaps be lied to, and fool both himself and so many people whose entire job is to be smarter than that for so long?
Better question: how could they not fool everyone, and do so pretty much forever?
You’re an editor for a sports website, tasked with selling young men’s eyeballs to advertisers. A writer comes along. She’s young, attractive, knows a little about gambling, has enough social media followers to fill a midsized college football stadium. At least, that’s her story. Do you see right through Sarah Phillips?
You’re a book publisher, looking for the next Malcolm Gladwell, a man or woman of big, bold TED talk ideas, neuroscience insights for business school graduates, smart enough to flatter but accessible enough to understand, a writer on the verge of a publishing tipping point. How vigorously do you fact-check Jonah Lehrer?
You’re a sports fan, a journalist, a parent. You know the story of Michael Jordan -- that Michael Jordan -- getting cut from his high school varsity basketball team. You know how it made him work harder, taught him to never give up; you tell your child to do the same, tell yourself to do the same, because to make it in America, there is no other way; you know this because everyone says so (especially politicians). Work hard, get ahead is our national bedtime story, our collective comforting fable. So why would you bother dropping in on Jordan’s old high school coach?
It’s both easy and correct to label Armstrong a fraud, Te'o the perpetrator and/or victim of a hoax, all the others (hi again, Jeffrey Loria!) duplicitous con artists. It’s harder to take a good, long look in the mirror, at the face on other side of the transaction.
Why do we keep buying in, shelving our skepticism, believing in good stories when experience teaches otherwise? Because it beats the alternative. If you want to trick someone, lie to them. If you want to fool someone, tell them what they want to hear. Crush cancer. Win races. Smash helmets for a love lost too soon. Burn your notes. Print the legend.