Talk show host Oprah Winfrey (right) interviews Lance Armstrong on Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, during taping for the show "Oprah and Lance Armstrong: The Worldwide Exclusive" in Austin, Texas.
VANCOUVER — Try to tie this week in tabloid sports headlines together in one tidy package, and the stitch marks will stand out like the railroad tracks on a quadruple bypass patient.
“Cracked my chest open like a chicken,” a buddy of mine who underwent the operation once said.
The more delusional members of the viewing public probably thought that was what Oprah Winfrey was going to do to Lance Armstrong in the disgraced cyclist’s much-hyped, two-episode confessional on OWN, the network that comes free with your subscription to The Frisbee Network and Laundry TV and is available in several households, just not mine.
Oprah was going to crack open the cavity where the cold, calculating heart of this practiced liar theoretically resided. Armstrong would come clean, name names, tell her chapter-and-verse how he beat all those hundreds of drug tests and which crooks in the hierarchy of world cycling helped him. He would beg America for forgiveness, and apologize to all the people he had bullied, sued and tried to destroy while denying his use of performance-enhancing drugs before, during and after his seven Tour de France victories.
And then Hell would freeze over.
Those who thought a humbled Armstrong was a serious possibility are the same people who expected the truth, and nothing but the truth, to ever emerge in the strange case of Manti Te’o and his imaginary dead girlfriend, which goes to the very top of the charts of the weirdest sports stories of my lifetime.
Now three days old, it’s the tale — revealed by Deadspin.com, the online sports journal — of the Notre Dame middle linebacker who appears to have got suckered into an online-and-telephone romance with a non-existent California girl, and then perpetuated the hoax, even after he knew it was a lie, because it was easier than explaining what a meathead he must have been to fall for the scam in the first place.
Easier than explaining that he had never actually met the girl, or that it was an acquaintance of his (a descendant of the great Samoan football clan, Tuiasosopo) who had probably invented the entire hoax, or that he was so thick he hadn’t even smelled a rat when his imaginary girlfriend told him she was dying but didn’t want him to come to her funeral, she only wanted him to send white flowers and keep playing games and making tackles to honour her memory.
Yikes. Even linebackers who’ve made too many helmet-on-helmet tackles are supposed to be smarter than that.
More damningly — and here’s where Te’o morphs from victim of a sick joke to opportunist — the revelations about his delayed response lead suspiciously to his candidacy for the Heisman Trophy, which had been greatly enhanced by the sob story of the “love of his life” dying from leukemia (having already survived an horrific car accident!) on the same day his grandmother passed away.
The grandmother, by the way, appears to have actually existed, so he’s got that going for him, which is nice.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame itself — which at minimum stayed silent and at worst was complicit in keeping the story from getting out, for fear of damaging The Legend of Te’o, not to mention the team’s quest for a national championship — no doubt is trying to work out a final explanation that will provide just enough of the truth to pass a cursory sniff test, while protecting the elaborate mythology of the school that gave us Knute Rockne and The Gipper.
It’s a sick enough narrative — if the pedophile revelations at Penn State weren’t, before it — to make even a die-hard fan wonder how out-of-whack college football, at the highest level, has become.
Is there any hope of a sense of proportion returning, to even as revered an institution as Notre Dame, when it finances a full investigation of an imaginary dead girl but can’t be bothered to do so for a real one — college freshman Lizzy Seeberg, who, after alleging that she was sexually assaulted by a Fighting Irish player in 2010, took her own life, having been warned to keep her mouth shut by a friend of the alleged perpetrator.
No charges were ever laid.
At least there is no victim in the Manti Te’o deception, other than Heisman voters perhaps — luckily for them, he didn’t win — which is where his scandal diverges from that of Mr. Liestrong.
Armstrong’s limited admissions to Oprah might not be limited enough to prevent civil suits brought by sponsors he deceived, and from whom he took millions in endorsement money, and former associates and assorted enemies he sued, including whatever sum the Sunday Times of London paid in a settlement when he tried (ultimately without success) to silence the heroic Irish writer David Walsh, who dogged his footsteps for more than a decade.
Considering the number of times Armstrong denied his drug use under oath, prosecution for perjury ought to be a slam-dunk, if anyone pushes for it.
He is a wealthy man, thanks in no small part to the legitimacy the Livestrong Foundation gave him (and he it, to be fair), while raising hundreds of millions for cancer awareness and research, a lot of which apparently went anywhere but cancer research and awareness.
But that is the case with a lot of well-meaning fundraising endeavours. Overhead, and all that.
How much of his fortune will he be able to keep once his empire has been utterly razed to the ground? Depends how vengeful the world decides to be.
Maybe the whole idea of the Oprah thing wasn’t so misguided after all. He surely didn’t intend the camera to reveal what a cold, remorseless creep he can be. But clearly he never intended to tell the whole truth and provide the incriminating evidence that could allow cycling — and the larger world of doped sports — to begin to get rid of the rot at its source.
Maybe it was just to make the appearance of confession, to give the gawkers another freak show to watch for a couple of nights, knowing that they would grow tired of it and move onto the next thing, the way we were all titillated by Manti Te’o before Lance-does-Oprah diverted our attention.
Oh, and did you hear? Al Pacino is going to play Joe Paterno in the movie about Penn State.
Hockey is going to seem awfully normal after this week.
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