AUBURN, Ala. — Call it the Michael Jackson factor.
Or Britney Spears, or Lindsay Lohan, or the Olsen twins.
Does the American public more enjoy watching a darling rise to grace, or a rascal in disgrace? A shooting star, or a falling star? A fairy tale made for Disney, or a scandal made for TMZ?
More often than not, especially in sports, it’s hard to tell.
We cheered Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa as they battered home run after home run, chasing and ultimately clubbing baseball’s most hallowed record. Of course, their accomplishments were just a hoax, aided by performance-enhancing drugs.
We cheered Lance Armstrong as he became the world’s most dominant cyclist, vindicating his sport as relevant in the United States with a closetful of yellow jerseys. Of course, his accomplishments were just a hoax, aided by performance-enhancing drugs.
We thought Danny Almonte was genuine, a super-duper stud baseball pitcher taking Little League by storm advanced beyond his years. Except as it turns out, he wasn’t — deceit about his age tarnished whatever legacy he’d crafted.
We thought Joe Paterno was genuine, a god among college football coaches who more importantly than winning oodles of games was the eternal teacher, looking out for the best interests of young men. Except as it turns out, he wasn’t — deceit about his right-hand man’s interaction with young boys tarnished whatever legacy he’d crafted.
We admired Tiger Woods, Brett Favre and Michael Phelps as the Golden Boys of their sports. Until deep, dark secrets about their personal lifestyles came to light, and we never viewed them as heroes the same way again.
We admired Andre Agassi, Serena Williams and Phelps as ambassadors of their sports. Until deep, dark secrets about their hatred for their craft, how it was merely a means to an end, came to light, and we never viewed them as heroes the same way again.
And now, the unbelievable, the unthinkable, the can’t-wrap-your-mind-around-the-revelation that is this Manti Te’o story.
For as much attention as Te’o drew to himself, his university and his heritage as a Samoan and Mormon man who happens to be very, very good at playing linebacker, he’ll be remembered five times more for the Deadspin report and subsequent nationwide coverage that Te’o's girlfriend, a leading subject of Te’o's emotional tale during Notre Dame’s run to the BCS championship game, never existed.
She was a hoax.
Much like too much else in sports.
We’re all sports fans. Which means we’re united in that to whatever degree you choose, we crave greatness.
We want to believe Nick Saban, Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt have adorned their trophy cases on the strength of their character, not their NCAA violations.
We want to watch Kevin Sumlin and Brad Stevens grow into incredible coaches for many, many years, but also serve as role models for even longer.
We want to see LeBron James and Johnny Manziel make mistakes and redeem themselves when given a second chance.
We want to root for Derek Jeter and Jimmie Johnson, for Rory McIlroy and Bryce Harper, for Usain Bolt and the U.S. Gymnastics team.
We want to be captivated by Chuckstrong.
Which, come to think of it, is a term conceived out of another that was uncovered as a lie in and of itself.
Is nothing sacred?
We sure hope that’s not the case.
More often than not, it’s hard to tell.
Aaron Brenner, firstname.lastname@example.org