I find it of no particular surprise that as I sit to convey my thoughts on two of the biggest and most shocking sports stories in recent memory that a number of quotes from famous movies immediately come to mind as perfect starting points. I’ll spare you the Hollywood cheese/sleaze, but it must be reiterated that it is my belief that the entertainment arts have a much larger cultural affect than we care to acknowledge. Furthermore, it is our frighteningly passionate and borderline malevolent desires to blur the lines between fiction and reality when preparing to crucify supposed heroes of the athletic community that have fallen from grace that are the causes for the comic uproar we currently find ourselves in amidst the stories of Lance Armstrong and Manit Te’o.
This week we watched a man who for years had brazenly denied any accusations brought against him that claimed he took performance enhancing drugs on his way to becoming one of the most dominating and celebrated athletes in the history of sports come clean about his cheating with as a little as an, “I’m sorry.” We also shook our heads in confusion as a seemingly intelligent and admirable college student revealed that he had taken part in an online relationship with a girl who turned out to have never existed; a girl who supposedly “died” during the football season, granting Te’o a great amount of publicity.
What immediately strikes me about both of these cases is our immediate and semi-innate longing to form an opinion on these people—these flawed and imperfect human beings that we have likely never met nor ever will. You are either a supporter or a denouncer. I have no problem identifying myself in the minority, but I have trouble understanding this requirement for a good/evil distinction. There is good and evil in all of us—and that is no news to you, but this fact seems to evade people taking part in water cooler discussions over these men. These situations are so deeply complicated and layered that they must require much more than these rudimentary judgments.
Where does this wish for singular identification come from that drives us to take a stand one way or the other? One place we may look is the entertainment arts, which have been crafting binary opposites between protagonists and antagonists since the first stories were told. We sit down and root for superheroes who are good to their very core and will never compromise their values amidst any hardships. But, at the same time, we know that these people do not truly exist and that their presence on the screen or the page serves as a surreal example of what a perfect human being might look like.
Why do we let authors perpetuate this trend? It makes for simple, and in my opinion sloppy, storytelling. Audience members love to be told what to do and who to root for. In short, they enjoy not having to think. Yet, in this day and age, we continue to see through stories like those of Armstrong and Te’o that such oppositions simply do not exist. There are no true or pure good and bad guys.
Manti Te’o is a phenomenal football player who was either idiotic enough to enter into a romantic relationship with someone without ever even laying eyes on her, or knowingly took part in a fake relationship in order to gain publicity. Both possibilities speak to his character in a negative light, yet we are so quick to dismiss the hallmark qualities we initially hailed him for. He took the field, as a captain no less, the day after his grandmother passed away and lead his team to victory. He claims to be a man of faith and is clearly a person his teammates look up to and revere. And he is said to be extremely faithful to his family. No matter how foolish or misleading his actions regarding a fake girlfriend, these qualities simply cannot and should not be overlooked.
The situation of Lance Armstrong carries more weight yet should be given similar examination. All things considered, the destructive and harmful nature of his actions over the past few decades seems, at first glance, nearly insurmountable. To have lied publicly time and again about cheating his way to becoming the greatest cyclist of all time cannot go ignored. Furthermore, the unabashed and unashamed fury with which he attacked people who questioned him is nothing short of frightening: the man was willing to destroy the reputations and lives of anybody who set up to reveal his faults, while using his status as a “superhero” to humiliate them in the process. Yet, after the smoke has cleared, we still have a cancer survivor who has raised millions of dollars in cancer research. Though his desire to win may have clouded his judgment, his devotion to cancer research is undeniably admirable and should be praised for years to come.
What shocks me through all of this is not only our forceful actions that elevate these people to superhero status but also our rapid rejection and dismissal of them at the first sign of fault.
Amidst all of this, where is the forgiving and accepting nature of the human race?
What these men did is by no means easily forgiven and should certainly be condemned. But who are we to judge these people? What give us that right? They didn’t even necessarily ask to be put under such scrutiny. That was our decision. We gave them the label of superhero, and we are also the ones who seem to find some sort of sick joy when we get to strip them of said title.
It may serve us best to leave superheroes to our imaginations, where they are unlikely to let us down. But, in my opinion, there is more beauty in the grey imperfections of real life human beings than we will ever find in a world where black and white never blends.