WE LOVE THE STORY. Oh, how we love the story. We love the comeback story and the redemption story and the underdog story. Cyclist overcomes cancer to become the best ever, starts a half-billion-dollar charity and does it all clean? Yes, please. Humble, soft-spoken linebacker leads Notre Dame to undefeated regular season while heartbroken by the death of his grandmother and the girlfriend he calls "the love of his life"? Oh, lord -- we'd better take two.
They came into our lives as parables: Lance Armstrong, dressed in a uniform of defiance and solid all-American stubbornness; Manti Te'o, with a gold-flecked helmet covering unfathomable sorrows. Now they stand flawed, exposed, their legacies altered in differing degrees by the machine that created them in the first place.
We believe despite ourselves. We know people are complicated and lives are messy. We know it's illogical that the second through 60th finishers at the Tour de France are dirty but the guy who won seven straight is clean. We know how the powerful force of myth can take a story like Te'o's and burnish it to a sun-bright sheen. We know that myth begets myth.
None of that knowledge made the third week in January more believable or less confusing. It was the week Armstrong confessed to doping after more than a decade of vindictive bullying and resolute denials. It was the week Te'o, a veritable avatar of Notre Dame football, had to admit that his dead girlfriend, the source of strength and motivation and so many column inches, never existed.
Unbelievable maybe, but we believe the unbelievable. In sports it's more than that: We're conditioned to believe in fairy tales. We're primed to believe the maudlin tales of comebacks and tragedies and underdogs because we're removed from them. They're out there somewhere, streaming back to us in 1's and 0's, entering and leaving our lives like deliverymen. They are somehow real and not real.
We believed the Te'o story because there was no reason not to. He could have his pick of beautiful girls, real-life, in-the-flesh girls, so why would he -- or anybody else -- fabricate one that fell into a Job-like run of rotten luck? Nobody wanted to let a few inconvenient facts, like the absence of any online trace of Lennay Kekua, smudge the carefully polished legend. As Armstrong and Te'o undoubtedly know, it's easier to lie when lies are what everyone wants.
Our thirst for the story is an ongoing condition. Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan in 2004 was sold by the Army in a prepackaged, media-friendly way: He took on enemy fire, fought valiantly and received a posthumous Silver Star. A subsequent Army investigation revealed a much darker reality: death by friendly fire. We wanted Tillman to be a hero the way we wanted Armstrong to be the greatest cyclist ever and the world's greatest humanitarian. We wanted Te'o to return Notre Dame to glory and do it with the heaviest of hearts. We want the human spirit to defy skepticism.
Enemies are as important as heroes. Detractors have become haters, and haters have come to play a more important role in the dual athletic narratives of inner motivation and outer inspiration. Would the desire to believe in the purity of Armstrong's blood have been less urgent had his most vociferous detractors not been French? The height of his fame came at a time when congressmen were changing french fries to Freedom Fries in the House of Representatives' cafeterias to protest France's opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. To root for Armstrong was to root against the French. To root for Armstrong was to root for America. To root for Te'o was to root against those with an irrational dislike for Notre Dame football. To root for Te'o was to root for an august American institution.
The progression continues. Our arenas and stadiums have become our modern shrines, ever bigger, ever gaudier. Inside them, athletes grow bigger than life. Fictional characters become real. Real characters become fictional. Their stories become parables, almost biblical exemplars of good and evil, avarice and generosity, virtue and vice. Like all parables, they're representative and not real, and their purpose is to teach us something we didn't already know.