The students in the sportswriting class I teach and I had a wide-ranging discussion this week about Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o who is, depending on one's opinion, either the most tragic figure in the sporting world, the most oddly manipulative or, somehow, perhaps somewhere in the middle. We talked about catfish and athletes tweeting and verifying information and all kinds of things.
The entire nation was talking about Manti Te'o this week, and it had nothing to do with his 40 time.
At one point, one of those students posed an interesting question -- are we (the media, fans and, well, everyone else) becoming more concerned with the things athletes do away from the field than what they actually do between the lines?
Look at the big sports stories of week -- Te'o had a terrific season for the Fighting Irish and was (and maybe still is) poised to become a high draft choice. But because the deceased girlfriend that so many of his fans wept for never actually died (and might not have ever existed), NFL personnel will have a lot of other questions for him during the combine, and Notre Dame's administration, which took a firm public stand behind the player this week, could face a serious blow to its reputation if it turns out Te'o was really the hoaxer and not the hoaxee.
Lance Armstrong is a different case, because the lies he told for years about performance-enhancing drugs were tied directly to his, well, performance. But he had become an iconic figure that transcended his sport not merely because of his seven Tour de France titles but for the work he had done with his Livestrong charity and the symbol he had become as a cancer survivor. Armstrong the disgraced cyclist isn't nearly the story of Armstrong the disgraced cyclist, philanthropist and celebrity.
Then there's Bill O'Brien and his Penn State football team. What they achieved on the field this season earned O'Brien three national coach of the year awards, has many of the seniors on the verge of professional football careers and gave Nittany Lion fans something to cheer about after a year filled with sadness and anger.
But did those fans need O'Brien and those Nittany Lions to be more than simply players and coaches? Would they have felt the same about Michael Mauti's November knee injury if he hadn't made his public comments about unity and perseverance in August? If O'Brien had decided to go to the NFL, would it have stung because Penn State fans would have lost a great coach or because they would have lost someone who had restored their hope in loyalty and a sense of something greater than just a game and a team?
A number of coaches were qualified to win the Bear Bryant Coach of the Year award, and most of them had led their teams to better records than the 8-4 mark O'Brien and his Nittany Lions tallied. It's hard to believe he didn't receive that honor for more than a few intangible reasons.
Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we want the players and coaches we cheer for to be more than pieces on a chess board. Otherwise we wouldn't put LeBron James' face on billboards and we wouldn't really care if Tiger Woods cheated on his wife. Sports are, in so many ways, metaphors for life -- winning and losing, overcoming adversity. We watch these men, women and even children perform in pressure-packed spots and, in some small measure, share in their exaltation and in their disappointment. If they drop a touchdown pass or strike out with a man on third, we want them to be as devastated as we are. We want them to appreciate the million-dollar homes and luxury cars their talents have provided them, because we don't have them. We want them to be heroes, even if we know that many of them can and will eventually let us down.
Is that fair? Maybe not. Maybe it's important to remember that Manti Te'o is just a 21-year-old kid, that Tiger Woods doesn't really like us if he wins or loses, that Mike Mauti will likely wind up being successful whether he's a football player or not. Maybe it should be enough that we get to watch them play the games we love at the highest level for a few hours each week, listen to them talk about it for 15 minutes after the game, then forget about them until the next matchup. Maybe we should find a way to separate the player from the person.
It's hard to do that with heroes, though, isn't it?