It was a brutal week for those of us who love feel-good sports stories.
Between the lies of Lance Armstrong and the insanity of the Manti Te'o situation, it was hard to champion making athletes any more iconic than their talent alone makes them.
As sobering and sad as the realities of both situations are to sports fans, they're downright depressing to journalists. Let's face it, Te'o doesn't get to tell his story, whether he lied or someone lied to him, without the help of reporters.
After reading the accounts provided by some of the reporters who told Te'o's story, there is no doubt they made mistakes. But to a lesser degree, I understand how it could happen.
Years ago, I was once covering a high school game in which a player had a career-best night. The reason, she told me afterward, was that she'd lost her mother and was playing to honor her.
I talked to the coach about it, and she confirmed the girl's mother died recently and added to the story by relating how supportive she'd been of the player and the team. However, through the chaos of obtaining postgame interviews, I didn't realize until I got home that I hadn't verified the dates. Fortunately for me, I was able to do a Google search and confirm them after finding the mother's obituary.
It was definitely an unusual situation.
Over the past few days, I have thought about that story — and many others like it — and why I chose to write them. As I analyzed my own methods, and the reasons behind them, I came up with a lot more questions than answers.
First of all, why do we (reporters) try to tell those stories? And why do we (fans) enjoy reading them?
I think it's for the same reason: We yearn to connect as human beings. We tell our stories all the time — to each other, to our children and sometimes, to the media.
My parents used stories from their childhoods to teach me lessons, to entertain me, and to reveal to me who they are. It's the same reason we all tell our stories to friends and families.
It wouldn't matter if they were fiction — except that once we start writing things down, they have a little more power. They're no longer just thoughts or perceptions; they become facts upon which others rely. Sadly, what we've learned in the last couple of years in just sports stories alone is that we don't really know the athletes and coaches we revere — no matter how much we read about them.
So should reporters stop telling these inspirational stories? Should we stop looking for those things in an athlete that we can relate to, or that might inspire us in our own lives?
I read a very compelling story on why Armstrong could get away what he did while many of us in the media defended him and the public insisted on adoring him.
The assertion was that we want heroes, and we media types are more than willing to create them — even if that means not being as diligent as we should.
But I disagree.
I believe there are some people looking for heroes, and they'll find them, whether we tell inspiring stories of triumph off the field or not. In fact, simply being the best in a game is reason enough for some to adore and overlook obvious flaws.
I think the reason we love those stories, even need those stories, is that they provide us with examples of how people can overcome, how they can preserve, and ultimately, how we can do it too.
These stories don't just make us feel good — they motivate us to be more determined, to be stronger, and to be better versions of ourselves.
My cousin alerted me to a story about two little boys, Connor Green and Cayden Long, who compete in triathlons together as Team Long Brothers. No big deal, except Long, 6, has cerebral palsy and has to be pushed, pulled and carried throughout each race by Green, his brother, who is 9.
LeBron James was at an awards ceremony where Sports Illustrated named the duo Sports Kids of the Year, and James said he planned to show the video version of their story to his two young sons so they'd know how they should take care of each other.
He said he wouldn't have to lecture any more — just tell the story.
Life is long and sometimes it's pretty brutal. It's important to find inspiration in our own lives.
Athletes have a platform given to them simply because they are excellent in one area, and our admiration makes that platform more powerful.
I'm the first to admit our affection for athletes is disproportionate for what they do, and I'll concede the media is partly responsible for that. But that doesn't make these kinds of stories any less compelling or important. In fact, it may make them more critical.7 comments on this story
Athletics teach us lessons when we're not even open to learning. We share those stories, and again, the lessons come in a way that makes them much more powerful — and palatable — than if you had simply read the definitions of hard work, team work and commitment.
If I've gained any answers this week, it's simply that we need to continue embracing these stories, even as we (the media) become more diligent about verifying them, and as we (the fans) keep them in perspective as we consume them.