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COLUMN

Armstrong, Te'o and the end of hero worship

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For more sports commentary, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

Let's appreciate skills but cancel pedestal construction

Thursday, January 17, 2013 - 12:13 am

Lance Armstrong teaches a valuable lesson: If you're going to cheat, lie, slander and make millions off being a fraud, it's good to have Oprah in your phone contacts when the jig is up.

Then you can go on TV – for those who can find Oprah Winfrey's network – and discuss your “mistakes” with a sad look of regret in your eyes. Oprah will express indignation, scold you a bit like a mother or close friend, and then hug you and hope you get a second chance.

Poor Lance, he needs a second chance.

After all, he was only lying when he denigrated former teammates and others who questioned whether he was cycling clean. He was only cheating for years, and apparently leading the way in the performance-enhancing cheating, all the way to the finish line. He was only the total opposite of the inspirational figure he was touted to be.

I'm tired of second chances for phony sports heroes. So, I have less than zero sympathy for Armstrong, if that's possible.

But I'm willing to look for a silver lining and this is it: We're another step closer to the end of sports hero worship.

All of our sports heroes let us down when we build them up too high, thanks to their universal character flaw of being human.

Wednesday afternoon, the strange tale of Notre Dame's Manti Te'o and his fictitious girlfriend surfaced, the most bizarre story in the fabled history of Notre Dame football.

This unfolding saga isn't quite as easy to digest as Armstrong's performance-enhancing drug use, but it reinforces the fact that things aren't always as they seem off the field, either.

Too many contradictions exist to easily believe Te'o was simply a naive victim of an online hoax. Maybe he exaggerated his “relationship” with an online girlfriend and couldn't figure out a way to take it back once it grew into a legend by the media too quick to mythologize a college kid. Maybe he flat out lied. We know this for sure: Things were not as they seemed, or as he led us to believe.

Put athletes on a pedestal and they'll eventually fall off it, one way or another.

Sports heroes have been letting us down in one way or another for our whole lives, no matter how old we are, from Mickey Mantle to Pete Rose to Magic Johnson to Tiger Woods to Armstrong. They can all do one thing better than 99 percent of the rest of us and we hold them up as if they're superhuman. They're not, as we're reminded time and again.

It's unrealistic to think children will give up sports hero worship, and certainly not as long as ESPN “Top 10 Plays” is part of the morning or evening ritual. I'm a sports fan as well as a writer. I've watched a lot of sports with my kids. I'm still awed by incredible plays and moves by LeBron James or Robert Griffin III or whoever displays some skill far beyond most of our capabilities.

Children get a pass on blind adulation, to a point. But it's up to us, now more than ever, to gently guide them into marveling over the feat without worshiping the person.

Sports admiration is fine. Appreciate how Justin Verlander can throw a baseball, how Reggie Wayne can catch a football with one hand and keep both feet in-bounds, and how LeBron can fly.

Stop the process at admiration of the skills. Don't cross over to considering those players as superior people. The three I just mentioned all seem like decent men, unlikely to appear in a police blotter or a drug scandal or any other image-tarnishing (or worse) situation. But there are no guarantees in sports any more than there are in entertainment, politics and our neighborhood.

It's a fine line as a sports fan, embracing skills admiration but rejecting hero worship.

Maintaining perspective has been easier for me as I've been privileged to cover sports at all levels and I've seen the beginnings, highlights and sometimes sad endings of careers. Today's heroes are often forgotten once they're out of the public eye. Building them up into something larger than life can hurt them even more than it hurts us. We should back off the hero construction, although that's a tough task with 24/7 sports coverage.

Being angry at Armstrong's fraud is a legitimate emotion many people feel. I'm not sure if 2 hours with Oprah changes anything. He was a hero. Now he's disgraced.

The tale of Te'o, a false one inflated by the media without the media doing its job to fact-check, seems destined to leave everyone feeling a little ill. Depending on how it eventually shakes out, we could feel duped once again.

Let's remember athletes are mere humans before making the next guy a hero for his sports skills. Sooner or later we have to get burned for the last time. Don't we?

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.