DISGRACED CHAMPION—In this July 5, 2004 photo, US Postal Service team leader Lance Armstrong sits by the registration bus before the second stage of the 91st Tour de France cycling race between Charleroi and Namur, Belgium. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)
by Tim Dahlberg
AP Sports Columnist
The verdict is finally in on Lance Armstrong, and it’s worse than anyone thought.
His appearance with Oprah was a disaster in so many ways that you wonder how he ever thought she would be the first step on his path to salvation. Armstrong went before her to save his skin and keep a few of his millions, only to be further exposed as a narcissistic, calculating, bike riding sorry excuse for a human being.
Not only was he—and seemingly still is—a bald faced liar, but also a cold fish who thought nothing of crushing his victims, then dancing on the remains. Even Oprah couldn’t humanize him, and when the two-night televised extravaganza was mercifully over, the only logical conclusion is that he is a man with little redeeming value, cancer survivor and yellow wristbands notwithstanding.
“I don’t like that guy,” Armstrong said at one point about himself, a feeling shared by almost anyone who watched.
The verdict is still out on Manti Te’o, who in just the space of a few hours went from a Heisman-contending star linebacker to an Internet punch line. Today’s news cycle is so swift that the damage was already done by the time Te’o sat down for a lengthy interview Friday night to paint himself as a victim of a bizarrely cruel hoax.
The online speculation before that was that Te’o might have invented a dead girlfriend as part of a campaign to win the Heisman. The reality seems to be that he was simply incredibly naive and caught up in something he couldn’t somehow bring himself to understand.
I mean, we’ve all had our imaginary playmates, but for most of us we quit talking to them about the age of 8. We certainly didn’t stay up all night for weeks at a time listening to them breathe on the phone.
Te’o is the one who should be on Oprah for some counseling and a group hug. Imagine the ratings coup when the tough linebacker with the trusting face confesses his vulnerabilities in a teary prime-time special.
No one wants to hug Armstrong, that’s for sure. Not even Oprah, though she did appear concerned when he told her he lost $75 million on one day when all his sponsors bailed when the truth they surely already knew became public fodder. Predictably, though, Oprah didn’t follow up on how many millions Armstrong still has in the bank—some estimate his accounts still hold $100 million, all funded by his many lies.
Meanwhile, the verdict on those of us who report all of this is mixed.
Are we all enablers, so eager to beat the next guy on a story that we simply accept the most improbable claims as fact? Armstrong won seven Tour de France titles while racing against riders who were doped and we were supposed to believe he wasn’t? Many writers overlooked that, just like they ignored pesky details about Te’o’s dead girlfriend, such as the fact there was no record anywhere that Lennay Kekua existed, died, or was injured in a terrible car accident.
Then there’s the way we’re caught up in a world of instant news that is consumed so vociferously that we can barely keep up trying to feed the beast.
Consider this about the way the Te’o story evolved. After the irreverent—and highly entertaining at times—website Deadspin broke the story about his imaginary friend, there followed a media orgy of trying to first make sense of the story and then advance it. The Notre Dame athletic director helped out by crying at his news conference defending Te’o, providing even more fodder
This was followed Friday with another breathless scoop—the fake girlfriend told Te’o that she had to fake being dead because some fake drug dealers were out looking for her.
By then things had gotten so bizarre that the player who beat Te’o out for the Heisman weighed in on it. Johnny Football, the Texas A&M quarterback also known as Johnny Manziel, declared that even his “mind was blown.”
All along, productivity in offices around the country slowed to a crawl as jokes were traded across Twitter and Facebook about fake dead girlfriends. Things went so far that a minor league baseball team declared a promotion day in honor or Te’o, with an offer of a fake bobblehead of the girlfriend and empty seats next to paying customers for their imaginary friends.
Unlike Armstrong, Te’o has not been accused of being anything more than being duped—having imaginary friends is not a crime—but the bizarro factor is so off the charts that his life will never be the same again.
In his first interview off camera with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, he denied any wrongdoing and said when people know all the facts they’ll know there is no way he could have staged any of it. I tend to believe that, if only because this is a grown man who still seems so childlike that he was so scared to tell his father about the whole thing that his best friend—this one real—had to be there with him.
We’re so used to people lying to us that no one is going to be believed anymore. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens stood trial for it, Tiger Woods lived a lie by trying to get us to believe he was something he wasn’t, and Pete Rose lied when he said he didn’t bet on baseball.
No one lied like Armstrong, though. Lied for years every time he opened his mouth, never hesitating to unleash his fury on anyone who dared question the lies. He trashed reputations and ruined so many lives he has trouble remembering them all, while amassing a fortune built on his lies along the way.
So when he told Oprah that “I can’t lie to you” in answering one question, you immediately knew a lie was coming
Because, unlike with Te’o, everything Armstrong did was terribly real.