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BENNER: When our heroes fail, we love to take it personally

January 19, 2013

Few things rouse us more than a fall from grace, and the more precipitous, the better.

Sports so deliciously delivers grist for our grindstone time and again.

On a grand scale, it can be golfer Tiger Woods backing his SUV into a fire hydrant, football coach Joe Paterno caught in a coverup or, in the past few days, cyclist Lance Armstrong confirming a lie.

Then again, it can be on a more mundane level—well, as relatively mundane as Peyton Manning throwing an across-the-body pass that ends up in an opponent’s arms and thus furthers a star-crossed legacy.

Regardless, our judgment is harsh and condemnation instantaneous, especially in the new world of social media and, in particular, Twitter, where snark and ridicule are only 146 characters and a click away.

Our heroes, it seems, never fail to fail, and we cotton neither betrayals of trust nor shortfalls of expectations.

Thus, Denver Broncos quarterback Manning earns “goat of the week” dishonor from Sports Illustrated’s Peter King while Armstrong takes the early lead in louse of the year from most all of us.

For both, redemption will take a while in coming, if at all. We may forgive, but we never forget. The question is how to balance the scales on which we weight legacy.

In the case of Armstrong, for those of us who believed the lie, castigated his doubters, and drew inspiration from his courageous defeat of cancer, the sense of disappointment is profound. As noted in this space before, my history with Armstrong goes back to his earliest days of recovery from cancer surgery at the Indiana University Medical Center.

His subsequent rise to seven straight Tour de France titles was too good to be true and, as it turned out, too good to be true. Despite his steadfast denials, Armstrong didn’t just dope, he orchestrated doping, bullied teammates and intimidated critics.

But then.

But then there’s that whole Livestrong thing, the foundation that raised over a half-billion dollars for cancer research, prolonged and saved lives, and served as inspiration for untold thousands of cancer patients, including one very personal one: my mother.

So how, in the ultimate judgment of Lance Armstrong, do you ignore that?

And that is the conundrum we face as Armstrong begins his Image Rehabilitation Tour. The reality is that Armstrong did nothing to any of us, personally, unless those who made donations to his foundation feel they’ve been taken advantage of, even if the money did further cancer research.

Otherwise—in America, anyway—cycling remains a backburner sport to which we pay little attention other than those three weeks in July when the peloton is pedaling through French villages en route to Paris. Perhaps that’s Armstrong’s biggest crime, that he made us care about a sport and his narrative when we wouldn’t have, otherwise.

So disappointed, yes. Disgusted, not really. I certainly don’t feel sorry for him. Those I feel bad for are his Indiana University oncologist, Larry Einhorn; his neurosurgeon, Scott Shapiro; and his nurse, Latrice Haney Vaughn, each of whom made both professional and personal investments in Armstrong and now must feel enormously disheartened by how it played out.

Indeed, I feel bad for all of us who want to cling to the belief that victories are earned on a level and ethical playing field. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that most still are, and that we should celebrate those with the same fervor with which we condemn the cheaters.

Which brings me back to Manning who—again, for all I know—has earned his place in professional sport through nothing more (or less) than work ethic, commitment to excellence, and absolute grit and determination in overcoming four neck surgeries and a year away from the game.

That he returned to perform at such a high level in Denver is nothing short of extraordinary.

Yet, apparently, his legacy of this season will be that of the “goat” who threw the interception that set up Baltimore’s game-winning field goal in double overtime.

Ridiculous.

Certainly, no pro athlete—especially one of his stature and pay grade—is above criticism, and Manning’s playoff record is his playoff record, which is eight one-and-done appearances.

But to suggest that his career is somehow diminished or lacking is absurd.

Athletes err, as humans do, and we other humans love to take it personally when they do.

And then there’s Manti Te’o.

Wow.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
 

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