22 Aug 2014
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Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. Now, given the state of modern sportsmanship, perhaps we need to add another line to that age-old sports motto: The shame of getting caught.

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio? Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

More and more it seems sports have become more about the winning—at any cost—rather than how they’re played.

‘Decent’ people teach their kids the opposite, right? It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.

Sadly, today’s headline sports stories are about fallen heroes who have lost sight of that basic ethic. Take Lance Armstrong for instance. No, really, take him—far away.

For this once seeming wonder-of-the-sports-world has taken every bit of faith that fans, teammates and competitors alike invested in him and spit that back in our faces.

Now that Lance has 'come clean' in a sit-down interview with Oprah Winfrey, the patron saint of absolution, we’ve learned the truth: That he cheated more during competition and training than he ever played fair. He took the concept of the importance of winning at all costs farther than any other athlete.

Perhaps we can now coin a new verb: 

to armstrong (v)--the act of strong-arming ones teammates, fellow athletes and officials in order to cover-up one’s every illegal, underhanded and immoral effort to win without accomplishing true athletic achievement based on ability, unenhanced strength or performance, or true grit.

There’s a sense that modern sports—the industry that sports has become—is based on appearances and mythology. Many of our modern day sports scandals have happened because the myths that get perpetuated are upheld by the central players themselves, because there’s money to be made based on the myths.

We have only to look as far as Penn State to see the money-printing machine that rested on the myth of the men of character populating the house that Joe Pa built.  

So, too, did Armstrong come to believe his own mythology. He was the man who beat cancer, who moved (over) mountains to become the strongest and most capable man on two wheels—seven times; the man who so righteously founded an amazing cancer foundation must be pure and good enough to have never deceived those who believed in him; the man who believed so strongly in his good name that he repeatedly fired off career-ending, financially-draining lawsuits to attack against those who had the gall to call his very righteousness into question.

We’ve heard athletes before warn against the pitfalls of looking to people in the profession of sports as role models; we know too well the dangers of putting these mere mortals on the pedestals of gods. There’s been much written in recent weeks about what parents like me should teach our children in the wake of scandals like the one Lance Armstrong, the former hero, has created.

I have children of the age that these kinds of stories start to resonate loudly for. My son, a budding athlete focused on all things sports, changed the radio presets in my car to WFAN. His finger hovers over the button before I can turn the key in the ignition.

We talk about how nobody is perfect, that even the best among us are fallible, that people in the public eye often get used to believing their own press. We try to put stories about other athletes worthy of admiration in his path. We watched “The Blind Side” this weekend, to talk about strength, perseverance in the face of adversity, kindness and dedication.

There’s another sports story in the spotlight that we are tentatively watching, trying to figure out how to explain it to our 10-year-old enthusiast: Manti Te'o, the Notre Dame linebacker whose emotional backstory has suddenly fallen apart.

The much-talked-about girlfriend who died the same day as Te’o’s grandmother turned out to be a hoax, and Te’o has revealed in his first interview since the hoax story broke that he was duped. But he had done his own share of misleading the public, the press and his teammates as well as those around him because he feared what people would think if they knew he’d never met the girl he knew only online.

He was keeping up appearances. It’s all about the appearance of truth. But does anyone consider how things will appear after appearances are proven not to be true?

There may be no crying in baseball, but it now appears that there is skepticism in sports, and a lot of it. ESPN commentator Israel Guttierez said this past weekend, “Every major athletic accomplishment comes with a heavy dose of doubt, because we don’t know definitively who’s clean ... There’s too much lying going on in sports already.”

I write this column on Martin Luther King Jr. day, on a day when an unlikely man stands at the U.S. Capital and takes his second oath of office for a second, history-making term as President of the United States. On a day of heroes like today, I wonder whether our children should once again be encouraged to search for their heroes in places other than a gym, a ballpark, a stadium.

It is still possible to find true heroes in those places, to celebrate and admire. Take Super Bowl-bound Baltimore Raven Brendan Ayanbadejo, who has set an example supporting same-sex marriage equality. He’s in good company with players like NBA star Steve Nash, former New York Giant Michael Strahan, NHL player Sean Avery and the outspoken Minnesota Viking Chris Kluwe, who have all stepped up to proclaim their support of marriage equality.

What about Spanish runner Ivan Fernandez Anaya, who had the chance to seize victory in a cross-country event last month. Running behind the Kenyan runner who led through the whole race, Anaya saw the leader mistakenly pull up just 10 meters before the end of the race. Realizing the leader didn’t know where the finish line really was, Anaya slowed down and showed the Kenyan that he had just a few more strides to go.

Anaya was quoted in the Spanish newspaper El Pais as saying, “’I didn’t deserve to win it. I did what I had to do. He was the rightful winner. He created a gap that I couldn’t have closed if he hadn’t made a mistake. As soon as I saw he was stopping, I knew I wasn’t going to pass him.’”

If armstronging is the lowest form of sportsmanship, perhaps anayaing is what athletes should aim for instead.

Because otherwise what becomes of sports is far from victimless. The human capital left to flounder in the wake of celebrated falsehoods—the teammates whose honesty was corrupted by being forced to collude and lie; the sponsors and the supporters (like family members) who put their trust in the untrustworthy; the fellow competitors whose legitimate chances of victory were stolen—they’re all left damaged by the lies an athlete tells.

And so too are we, the fans and spectators, left holding the wisps of myths and dreams. Rather than being able to seize the chance of showing what commitment, perseverance, strength and dedication can create, we are forced to teach our children that these athletes are not the gods from Olympus, but simply humans lying broken at the mountain’s base.

The ends justify the means for athletes like Lance Armstrong. For them, winning is the goal at any cost.

Too bad it us who has to pay the highest price. 

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