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Andy Juniper

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How Sports Heroes Become Punchlines

Posted: 01/18/2013 5:51 pm

One day when our eldest son was but a little gaffer, he was in the family room watching Sesame Street, a peanut butter and jam sandwich in hand. I was sitting nearby, half keeping an eye on him, half reading a newspaper, when I became aware that the half-pint was toddling toward the the TV/VCR. Just as he was set to cram his sandwich into the gaping mouth of the VCR, he looked over at me with evil smeared all over his face, and intoned: "Not funny?"

No, Little Dude: Not funny!

I thought of this incident this week as disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o became punchlines on late-night talk shows and social media -- Armstrong for his two-part confessional with Oprah Winfrey, wherein he admitted to being a serial cheater, a chronic lier, and an "arrogant prick" back in the day; and Te'o for apparently having been a part (unwittingly, or otherwise) of a huge hoax wherein he allegedly fell head-over-cleats in love with, well, a non-existent dead girlfriend.

Admittedly, some of the Twitter punchlines were gut-busters. Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers weighed in on Manti: "These Te'o jokes are all very funny but let's all try and remember that a person who never existed is dead." While The Sports Junkie tweeted that "An Amber Alert has been issued for Manti Te'o's girlfriend..." As for Armstrong, Glenn Stout coined a powerful pun: "Bike-o path." While ESPN's Dan Rafael was more casually philosophical: "At least Armstrong's girlfriend existed..."

Not funny? Actually, funny but drawn from the deep, dark well of black humour. We laugh, but these stories are honestly more sad and sick, than funny.

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The Te'o story broke on Wednesday (thanks to the sports website, Deadspin). It probably should have broken earlier -- way earlier -- but journalists who really should have known better ran with a story that apparently seemed too good to fact-check. According to Deadspin:

"A Mormon linebacker who led his Catholic school's football program back to glory, Te'o was whipsawed between personal tragedies along the way. In the span of six hours in September, as Sports Illustrated told it, Te'o learned first of the death of his grandmother, Annette Santiago, and then of the death of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua..."

Only, a little investigative reporting revealed that Kekua didn't die -- could not die, in fact, because she did not exist. It was, Deadspin revealed, all a huge hoax. A hoax that media outlets across North America are still trying to unravel. Manti says, via a statement, that he was the victim of a "sick joke," although he has yet to come forward to answer the myriad questions that seem to implicate him in this sick joke. Here's Mike Downey's take on CNN regarding where we are with this story, and how we got there. A fascinating read.

Slightly less fascinating was Armstrong's weep-fest with Oprah, wherein the erstwhile King of Cycling (dethroned and disgraced) finally came forward to confess to what everyone, save for the ostriches, already knew: that his storied career was built on doping and deceit. A Tour de Farce, if you will.

So, shouldn't we be applauding Armstrong for finally telling the truth? Perhaps, if we believed he had seen the so-called light, that all he now wanted was to set the story straight, repent and atone for his egregious errors. Actually, insiders say that Lance and his Merry Band of Enablers -- a band whose ranks have admittedly thinned out considerably of late -- are, according to a story in the New York Times prior to the Oprah interviews, "wondering if a confession could mitigate Armstrong's lifelong ban from Olympic sports." Seems Lance wants to compete in triathlons.

Nothing at all self-serving about that, Lance. Nothing at all. As for the Oprah sessions, let's just say that it was hard to take watching Armstrong acting contrite, while being unable to recall the number of people he's sued, raked over the coals, and ruined for, well, being honest. And getting in Armstrong's way.

As author John Acuff tweeted: "Hardest part of the Armstrong situation is the folks he sued into bankruptcy for libel because they told the truth."

To understate, it's been a bizarre week in the always wacky world of sports. A week that has been mined for fabulous fodder by late-night talk show hosts and social media alike. A week that in reality was just so... "Not funny?"

No, Little Dude. Not funny!

 

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