MIAMI — Back in the 1600s, British playwright William Congreve produced The Mourning Bride. It had kings and love and mistaken identity and disguises and beheading and tragedy. All the things you saw in sports just last week, in other words.
The play's most enduring contribution to modern culture was the closing line from Act III: Heav'n has no rage like love to hatred turn'd. Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn'd. Hence the saying, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. But Scorn'd Woman might lose in a pay-per-view heavyweight match in Hell today against Scorn'd Sports Consumer, as disgraced Lance Armstrong and shamed Manti Te'o can tell you today while soaked in so much love-to-hatred-turn'd.
Fraud! Liar! Hoax! The crowd at this particular play seems to enjoy shouting these things when the disguises fall apart, turning our kings to court jesters whenever they fall down. Why? Because, while we wrap them in collisions and testosterone, sports are really just soap operas for males, allowing us to cluck and gossip in a way that feels masculine. Mock the gossip-monger for the obsession with celebrity in the supermarket's magazine aisle, but what we witnessed last week was the Kardashianization of our sports-news cycle, swallowed as it was by Scorn'd Sports Consumer.
This includes fans and media alike, by the way. Not exonerating us here, not by a long shot. There are reasons today that this story climbed from inside the playpen of your newspaper to the very front page, where adult things should reside. You crave this mess. We provide it. Then, inevitably, we overindulge at providing what you crave, for profit and for clicks, and you get mad at and blame us, the evil media. We are all a little bit dumber by transaction's end. In the interim, while the media is being heavy-handed giving you what you want well past the point you still want it, guys like Armstrong make that up-down-up journey from god-to-fraud-to-martyr as if he were still riding all those mountains on that bike.
Armstrong, a very smart cheater, knows all this. It is why he volunteered to step into the made-for-TV confessional booth under no obligation, flanked by attorneys, to purge himself in two parts ... so that he could start turning the rage to pity by giving his story one of those fresh blood transfusions that got him into so much trouble in the first place. Having conquered cancer and mountains, the devil-god on a bicycle is not daunted by impossible climbs, and so another begins for him now.
But the Scorn'd Sports Consumer must be heard first, damn it, so we will call Armstrong names and we'll gather up our pitchforks and our torches, and we'll even go find Oprah Winfrey, wherever she is now, to lead our angry mob. Alter your perspective by stepping back and gathering yourself amid all this hysteria for just a moment, though, and what you will see is that we pounced with furious anger and great vengeance upon:
1) A guy on a bicycle
2) A college kid with an imaginary friend
We gossip and cluck about what they were hiding just like those supermarket tabloids wonder about what John Travolta is concealing, the coverage so very disproportionate to the "crimes." So, too, is the anger and the need for answers and the whole absurd and wonderful circus that should come with soap-operatic strains and dramatic turns toward the camera. Athletes are competition-aholics looking for every advantage, cheating included, like junkies look for a high. College kids do dumb things and lie, even the famous ones who play for Notre Dame. It is so odd, though, this rinse-repeat way we behave about sports, first turning athletes into gods and then turning on them when these false gods we've created are revealed to be merely human. Then again, soap operas have been recycling the same storylines since before both soap and opera.
But sports? Aren't they supposed to be the escape from the stuff that angers us? Finding so much outrage amid fun/games/entertainment is like finding hypodermic needles in the funhouse, like getting food poisoning from the gingerbread house. Armstrong and Te'o were never merely saints when we loved them, and they are not merely frauds now that we don't. They are closer to being both those things than they ever were to being an either-or. They, like so many of us, like so much of life, exist in the in-between amid extremes. But our demand for "the truth" on these stories, while it sounds noble in principle, rationalizes away our clucking, gossipy behavior, too, as we loudly heckle these on-stage performers for disappointing us during what is supposed to be a play.
Unbelievable. You hear the phrase a lot in sports. For the good stuff. Upsets, comebacks, little sports miracles. They are unbelievable. From there, fans and media leap to "make-believe," mythologizing our sports heroes with adulation and worship, making them into their great athletic acts, assigning haloed character traits to them because they are great with a ball or a bike. The unbelievable in sports is pure and true, but the make-believe is pure and true bull feces. Merging the two contaminates both, and it feels like a linebacker and cyclist collided full-speed last week at the intersection of "unbelievable" and "make believe."
The result? You can't make up the stuff that happens in sports, even when so many of the participants are making up the stuff that happens in sports, so a fake on a bike and a college football player's fake dead girlfriend pushed off the stage last week something a lot more real: Despite a history of racial bias, and a rule put in place to help minorities, America's most popular league, the NFL, quietly under all our nonsense clucking finished filling all eight of its new head-coaching with white men, the last of whom actually has a last name pronounced Aryans.
Poor Te'o. He gets trampled here. He's not exactly an innocent, but he is a kid, and evidently not a very bright one. If what he keeps claiming is true, that he was too trusting, that he got tricked into believing an Internet girlfriend existed and then hand-fed a mythologizing media some fiction after he was duped to cover his understandable shame, he doesn't deserve coverage anywhere near this size. Heck, unlike Armstrong's lie and profit, Te'o didn't even win the damn amateur trophy his loudest critics say his lies were concocted to attract. He finished second. His is a victim-less crime.
His greatest offense may be playing for the religious school, Notre Dame, that has trafficked on sports mythology more than any other ever, and to great profit. Hard to believe Te'o would find himself in exactly this position if all the confusing facts about his story were exactly the same, but he played at Kansas State. More troubling: If an overzealous media were to ever accidentally out a gay college athlete, potentially wrecking a young man's life, this feels a lot like how it would happen.
Imagine, since so much of what fed us last week was make-believe, if that's how the curtains had somehow gone down on this particular play. Scorn'd Sports Consumer would have slunk out of this absurd theater, a place usually reserved for applause, having to share the weight on the heavy shame that today only a duped college kid with an imaginary friend must endure.