I’m not as much of a fan of the nerdier-than-thou webcomic XKCD as I used to be, but this one-panel strip has stuck with me:
It gets at something that not many fans or commenters like to admit—sports are only personal because we make them personal. There’s nothing inherently heartwarming or heroic about a bunch of men competing for arbitrary achievements on ritualistically demarcated fields and courts. If you like, you can take a step back and view athletes and statistics and win-production machines: “Tom Brady is my favorite football player because he accumulated 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns while only accumulating 8 interceptions. This positively affected the Patriots’ win-loss record, and the Patriots are the favored team of the geographic region in which I came of age.”
But of course athletes, like Dungeons & Dragons characters, are not just collections of numbers—they require backstories to get our attention. The most common athlete backstory is the Upstanding Young Man. Upstanding Young Men have high Charisma scores and generally Lawful Good alignments. They’re married or in long-term relationships, usually to a high school or college sweetheart; they either don’t drink or don’t drink too much; they Inspire Their Teammates and have Leadership Qualities; occasionally their lives may be Touched by Tragedy, in which case they are even more Upstanding for having Overcome Obstacles (almost all successful athletes have Overcome Obstacles, otherwise there’s not much that can be written about them).
Until yesterday, Manti Te’o, the star linebacker at Notre Dame, was an Upstanding Young Man among Upstanding Young Men. He was a Mormon (no danger of him Succumbing to Temptation!), he had Leadership Qualities out the wazoo, and his life had been Touched by Tragedy thanks to the death of both his grandmother and his saintly girlfriend. He still played in a game when he could have gone to his girlfriend’s funeral and intercepted two passes in a Notre Dame win—talk about Overcoming Obstacles!
The short version of the story is that Lennay Kekua, the saintly girlfriend who loved Manti with all her heart and died with his name on her lips and inspired him to etc. etc., never existed. She was a hoax, an invention of some malicious people who (Notre Dame and Manti say) fooled a naïve—and potentially no longer all that Upstanding—kid for reasons that are yet to be revealed.
That Deadspin piece has been circulated far and wide, not only because the story is FUCKING INSANE, but also because it doesn’t fit into any of the boxes that media-savvy sports news consumers are familiar with. Manti is no longer an Upstanding Young Man, but neither is he a Troubled Star or someone who Couldn’t Escape a Rough Upbringing Despite Talent. He isn’t Harmlessly Wacky or the related Speaks His Mind About Political Topics. He may be a Student of the Game or Just a Winner, and someday he may be a Savvy Veteran or a Team Cancer or even a Disgrace to the Sport, but for now all we know is that his life doesn’t fit the narrative formerly grafted onto it.
No athlete deserves the narrative that gets thrust upon them, of course. Mickey Mantle, All-American Hero and Icon, was a drunken asshole who got blowjobs under the bleachers at Yankee Stadium. Delonte West, the NBA player who has oscillated between being Troubled and Wacky in media reports, actually has a diagnosed mental illness. Brett Favre, who Loved the Game, also loved aggressively sexually harassing women. Tim Tebow, who was Just a Winner in Denver as well as An Inspiring Role Model Who Is Sorely Needed in These Immoral Days, turned out to simultaneously be not very good at his sport and also someone who lives by his beliefs, which confused a great many people who conflate athletic achievement with character. Even institutions get false narratives hung on them. Notre Dame, the Hallowed Program that Manti Restored to Glory, is also the same school that has turned a blind eye to women who got sexually assaulted by football players.
You would think that by now, we’d be basically immune to disillusionment and the discovery that what we know about any athlete is, at best, a half-truth. But the Deadspin story surprised everyone—how can a basic biographical fact, a girlfriend who died too young, be totally, completely wrong? Do we really know so little about our athlete-heroes?
In the old days, reporters wouldn’t reveal a star’s transgressions in print out of respect for his privacy (or to stay on good terms with them)—that’s how Mantle became an American icon while simultaneously drinking and fucking his way through life. Respect for privacy is obviously a thing of the past, but now famous athletes are closed to us thanks to a wall of PR flacks, agents, and managers. The biggest stars reveal themselves only through carefully coordinated sit-downs with ESPN and laudatory profiles that are inevitably full of the clichés we’ve come to expect. When ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski interviewed Manti about the love of his life and asked to speak to Lennay’s family—probably just to get a quote along the lines of, “They were really great together. It was like a fairy-tale romance.”—Manti turned him down, and Wojciechowski shrugged it off. Not getting access like that is normal. And other than a carefully prepared statement, Manti has yet to talk to the media about the bizarre turn his life has taken, despite (according to Notre Dame) knowing that his girlfriend was fake since December 6. Like most people with his absurd level of fame, Manti is closed off from the public. No wonder we reduce our heroes to clichés—without the clichés all we have to go on is numbers.