Commentary: Grasping the obvious

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Unless you’ve been hibernating in a proverbial cave this past week, you’ve been exposed off-the-field to the stories involving Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o and cycling champion Lance Armstrong.

Exposed? How could you not be? The pair has been featured on every news channel, sports station and talk show in the country this past week, one of them portrayed as a clueless but innocent victim, the other as manipulating cheater and liar.

Okay, we already know they’re both guilty of lying; that’s obvious from even a cursory examination of the facts. But the case of disgraced cyclist Armstrong and conned (or con man?) Te’o presents some salient lessons, I believe, that apply to anyone running a business or managing an organization with a public-facing presence.

Which, by the way, is anyone involved in animal agriculture, because you’re only a food-borne or animal disease outbreak away from sitting under the glare of those talk show lights yourself.

First, the cautionary tale of Manti Te’o.

What to make of a guy who claims to be possibly the most naïve human on the planet, who could (allegedly) fall in love with a non-existent woman he (allegedly) knew only from online chats, whose deathbed conversations never stirred him to actually go to her in person before she died, and whose funeral he didn’t attend because her dying wish (allegedly) was that he stay put and play in the Notre Dame-Michigan State football game?

I know, I know. There are thousands of people searching for love online, many of whom get scammed, “Catfished,” in the current parlance, by lowlifes who create fake profiles and pose as somebody they’re not.

Now, somebody like me, who came of age long before the Internet did, I can understand being susceptible to such a scam. There was no such thing as online anything when I was out there looking for love; the idea of having an “affair” that consisted strictly of online chatting isn’t remotely in my DNA, nor any other Baby Boomer.

But Te’o? A 20-something smart enough to be admitted to Notre Dame, who’s grown up with texting, sexting and online dating as normal, everyday activities? We’re supposed to believe he never once suspected that a girl he supposedly knew only from phone calls and emails, who never could get it together to spend time with him, who died from a disease that used to be fatal back when “Love Story” was filmed more than 40 years but now is quite curable might be a phony?

It’s hard to swallow the story Te’o’s selling, and more importantly, it’s incredibly risky for Notre Dame’s AD to go all in backing up his tall tale. No organization should shove all its chips into the middle of the table when its star performer’s saddled with a situation that must be characterized, to be generous, as “problematic.”

Maybe Manti Te’o was willing to make an ungodly leap of faith in falling for a fake romantic encounter, but if—and when—the truth comes crashing down around him, it will be Notre Dame University, not him, that gets savaged.

Illegitimate on every level

Next, Armstrong. For starters, there’s no shock value in his admission that he took illegal drugs during his competitive career. I mean, really? You’re telling me that Mickey Mantle was an alcoholic? That Pete Rose had a gambling problem? That Muhammad Ali was a womanizer?

Yeah—it was that obvious.

Indeed, most commentators have roundly condemned Armstrong for cheating, for (finally) admitting that during his run of seven straight Tour de France victory campaigns he took banned performance-enhancing drugs, that he concocted elaborate schemes to conceal illegal practices like blood doping and that he pressured teammates to follow suit, then tried to destroy critics who questioned the legitimacy of his triumphs.

I don’t disagree that he deserved to be stripped of his titles or that the condemnation he’s getting from the media and his once-loyal fans isn’t appropriate. But I don’t blame him for taking drugs, because it’s simply part of the go-all-out attitude, do whatever it takes to win mindset, the make victory your sole focus that every coach from junior varsity on up preaches to every athlete in their charge.

And as we now know, virtually every top competitor and just about every cycling team in the Tour at that time engaged in the very same practices Armstrong admitted to Oprah. Plenty of them besides Armstrong have been suspended, stripped of titles and banned from competition.

Meanwhile, the Tour organizers, the sponsors and the media were all raking in big bucks from the growing popularity and increased visibility of a sport that, beyond a niche market in Western Europe, had never made a dent in North America until Lance came along.

They all played along so they could fatten their bank accounts.

Not to mention the fact that if there were pills out there that would make me a better writer, that would lift me up to celebrity status and put some serious cash into my pockets, I’ll be honest: I’m taking those pills—especially if I knew that pretty much every other columnist out there was already ingesting them.

But I do condemn Armstrong for how he handled himself. Like the old saying goes, it ain’t the crime, it’s the cover-up that gets you. It’s not his win-at-all-costs approach that is so heinous—by now, we should expect nothing less from top athletes—it’s his ruthless destruction of other people’s reputations and careers during his decade of denials that raises his transgressions to a horrific level.

In the end, Lance Armstrong proved to be exactly what he appeared to be: A cold, calculating, manically driven athlete whose only concern was crossing the finish line ahead of everyone else. He did whatever it took to get there, and as he told Oprah, he didn’t even see that as cheating. That’s what was necessary, in his mind, to win, so that’s what he did.

We all need to take a step back and realize the downside of win-at-all-costs, whether in sports, in business or in life. There is a cost, and it’s a price that isn’t worth the momentary glory or fame that accompanies such a victory.

If we can absorb that lesson, suffering through all the tabloid trash that’s been strewn around for the past week will have been worth it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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