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Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013

In Doubt We Trust

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How to describe “When Lance Met Oprah”? Riveting, appalling, enlightening, depressing—but in no way uplifting. And in the context of other fallen sports heroes, what can fans ever be sure of again?

 

Frank: Did you watch Mr. Armstrong come clean about his seven Tour de France titles?

Artie: Absolutely not. Isn't Oprah on some kind of daytime show for ladies? Besides, I couldn't care less about cycling with bikes. But I do wonder how Armstrong got away with all that doping yet never failed a drug test.

F: That stuff is in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report that sealed his fate last year. Some tests couldn't detect certain substances at the time they were taken. And Armstrong said the "doses" were precisely scheduled to leave his system before the next tests.

A: I think there was some bribery involved with the cycling authorities. The sport seems to be dirty from top to bottom.

F: Could be, though it seems like Armstrong was always at war with the sport's masters. But then he's been at war with just about everyone, including former teammates and friends—if he ever had any.

A: He’s getting no good reviews for giving the straight dope-rah to Oprah, ain’a?

F: You'll recall that I've always used the word “hard” to describe Armstrong: hard-looking, hard-sounding, a guy with his dukes up all the time. And he wasn't any warmer last week. He got a bit emotional when he talked about his son, but anyone expecting him to beg forgiveness was wildly mistaken.

A: Which is interesting, considering how vindictive he was to those who told the truth about him.

F: At least he didn't try to wear a mask of humility with Oprah. He was doping before he won his battle with cancer in the '90s, and when he won the Tour from 1999-2005 he was, in his own words, “a guy who expected to get whatever he wanted and control every outcome.” He looked Oprah in the eye and said the goal was to “win at all costs,” the doping didn't bother him and he didn't consider it cheating because it was part of the cycling "culture."

A: A non-apology apology.

F: And when the truth began coming out, he burned all his bridges with lawsuits, livid denunciations and defiance. He said he decided to be truthful only after his last loyalist, George Hincapie, joined the testifiers.

A: And now he could be facing big legal trouble himself.

F: Whatever one thinks of cycling, it's a stunning downfall of arguably the greatest name in the sport's history.

A: On a par with the disgrace of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, although their doping is still only assumed, not admitted. Two more "hard" guys with virtually no allies.

F: I sure thought of those two, and other tainted heroes. Marion Jones, the five-time Olympic medal winner of 2000 who tearfully admitted in '07 that she was doping all along. Mark McGwire, who thrilled us in his 1998 home-run race with Sammy Sosa but 'fessed up in 2010. Rafael Palmeiro, who angrily told Congress he never doped, then failed a drug test. Alex Rodriguez, who made a TV denial in '07 and recanted two years later.

A: It makes one think that every sport is filled with cheaters. I've always thought a lot of NBA players must be using something, with all the wear and tear they go through.

F: There always have been and always will be those who “cross the line” for a competitive edge. And their denials will sound credible because they're heroes. We wanted to believe the smiling, lovely Marion Jones didn't cheat. We wanted to believe the "Big Mac and Sammy Show" was on the up-and-up.

A: Still, how could Armstrong keep denying everything when he knew he was lying?

F: He used a very significant phrase with Oprah, saying there was a need to “perpetuate the story.” That is, the saga of his cancer fight, Tour triumphs and the good work of his Livestrong foundation for cancer research. He had a vested interest—a financial interest—in our trust.

A: Image is everything, as Andre Agassi told us in those camera commercials.

F: The big lesson is that we should be skeptical of any heartwarming story—in sports, entertainment, politics—that's being used to make money.

A: As Charles Barkley said years ago, “I am not a role model.”

F: Even though one place he said it was in a Nike commercial! But he's right: Better that we find our role models among those we actually observe living good lives—parents, relatives, teachers, those who keep our society safe. People who don't stand to profit from our admiration.

 

CAN YOU IMAGINE THAT?

F: The other huge sports story of last week was one of the strangest ever—the weird saga of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and the hoax that made him think he had an online girlfriend.

A: I didn't pay much more attention to it than I did to the Armstrong stuff, but for a different reason. Te'o is a college kid, and seems like a pretty naive one at that, and college kids do a lot of goofy things. Granted, having an imaginary girlfriend who supposedly died in September is pretty darn strange, but if anything he could probably use some counseling.

F: The perpetrator has finally come forward, so I guess the main mystery is over. It does seem that Te'o was naive in the extreme, but his status as a Heisman Trophy finalist and Notre Dame's presence in the BCS championship game...

A: “Presence” is the kindest way to describe how the Irish fared against Alabama.

F: Anyway, those things magnified the scope of the story but also raised a few questions about the timing of Te'o's discovery of the truth and Notre Dame's handling of the matter.

A: In other words, and alluding to Watergate again, what did he and the school know and when did they know it?

F: Right. Te'o supposedly got his first clue that the girlfriend was phony on Dec. 6, but kept referring to her and her death several times thereafter. He told ESPN on Friday night that was because he still wasn't certain what was going on.

A: Notre Dame's story is that Te'o first told coaches about the situation on Dec. 26.

F: That was almost two weeks before the BCS game, but the story of Te'o and his dead girlfriend—which had become part of the “fabric” of Notre Dame's season and Te'o's national image—wasn't debunked until Jan. 16, when Deadspin.com revealed the hoax.

A: Notre Dame says it investigated but it didn't tell the NCAA about the situation.

F: Which raises the question of whether the truth would have EVER come out if the Deadspin story hadn't surfaced. And Notre Dame is getting a lot of heat over its rapid and strong concern for Te'o's plight in contrast to the school's slow and tepid response to a woman who in 2010 reported that she'd been raped by a Notre Dame football player. The player wasn't questioned until two weeks later—five days after the woman committed suicide.

A: Sounds like a “protect the institution” attitude, like how Penn State dealt with the horrors of Jerry Sandusky for years.

F: And there are repercussions in the Te'o matter for the world of journalism. Apparently the Te'o story line was so compelling that what we like to call the “mainstream media”—including ESPN, which televised the BCS game—chose to ignore the inconsistencies and improbabilities.

A: There were all sorts of ways to try to confirm things like the girlfriend's death. But why let facts get in the way of a good love story?

F: There's a lot of media hand-wringing over how this could have happened. The best lesson lies in the old journalism adage: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

 

HOOP DREAMS GALORE

F: Marquette and Wisconsin are no longer undefeated in conference, but even in those losses at Cincinnati and Iowa they showed something.

A: Both teams shot terribly in the first half and went to the locker room trailing by 16, but both came on strong and made the game real close—in MU's case, yet another overtime job.

F: It's what we always say about those teams—not the greatest overall talent or shooting ability, but they always compete as hard as they can.

A: I was really hoping UW could steal this one from the Hawkeyes because they've got a rough stretch over the next two weeks: Michigan State and Minnesota at home, then trips to Ohio State and Illinois.

F: MU has it a little easier, with only home games against Providence and South Florida before they travel to Louisville. But really, the way this season has gone does anyone expect the Golden Eagles to make things easy on themselves?

A: Buzz Williams wasn't kidding when he called the seven-point win over Seton Hall “a blowout.”

F: MU and UW are so different in the ways they like to play, race-horse as opposed to calm and controlled. It's almost impossible to imagine the players for each team playing in the opposite system. But so what? Williams and Bo Ryan recruit the right kids for their programs and never let those kids give less than total effort.

A: The big difference for UW in the last few weeks has been the play of the young point guards. Traevon Jackson and George Marshall were supposed to be backing up Josh Gasser, and when Gasser went down for the season with a knee injury they looked out of sorts. But it seems like with extra practice time they've really come on.

F: It's true: Bo knows.

A: Talk about calm and controlled, UW went into Bloomington and totally ground down the Hoosiers. As they were finishing them off I couldn't wait to see what the handshake between Ryan and Tom Crean would be like. And I wasn't disappointed!

F: Crean looked like he had a bus to catch, racing past Bo and barely touching hands. Lotta class there, Tom!

A: No love lost there. That loss couldn't have happened to a better guy.

F: Meanwhile, the Bucks found a little spark under new coach Jim Boylan and completed a 3-1 road trip with wins at Phoenix and Portland.

A: Their first win in the desert since 1987!

F: And the first time they've won three times on the same trip since 2001.

A: The year they got one win away from the NBA Finals.

F: So at 21-18 the Bucks head into this week in shouting distance of the sixth and even fifth playoff spot in the East. I know you think one of the big reasons is the ascent of Larry Sanders.

A: Playing time, scoring and rebounding stats that have doubled from his first two seasons, blocking three-plus shots a game—what's not to like? And I'm glad Boylan has Ersan Ilyasova starting again; he's looking more like he did in the second half of last season. A mere 27 points and 14 boards in Portland!

F: One thing that hasn't changed much for the Bucks is home attendance. They went into this week 27th out of 30 NBA teams, averaging just a bit over 14,000 and down about 600 from last season.

A: That's certainly less than they hoped for and maybe less than they expected. I think attendance does tend to rise once the Packers are finished, but NBA prices ain't cheap and they don't lower them after football ends. If the home crowds don't show a spike soon, with a team that's become fun to watch, it'll tell me something.

F: And it won't be a good sign in a town where all the big shots will be talking more and more about needing a new arena.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for 18 years at The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek is OK with Lance Armstrong competing again—if it's on a unicycle.

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