Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Narratives of modern American athletes often seem to enforce a divide between truth and reality.
Where does the athlete-hero archetype come from? Looking to sports figures as culturally dominant, heroic figures dates back to classical times. Mythic narratives frame some of our earliest, foundational records of athletics. The mythic narrative that underlies the creation of the Olympics in 776 BC is the story of Pelops beating King Oenomaios in a chariot race and thereby getting to marry his daughter, Hippodamia. Pelops had a cult worship site at Olympia after his death; the formation of hero cults was a common practice in antiquity. Revering and memorializing athletic figures dates back to these first Games; neither societal idolization of athletes nor the construction of mythical narratives surrounding their identities are fixtures of modernity. But although certain parallels exist, there are gaping differences in morality, social rituals, and beliefs in terms of regulation and accountability within our modern athletic culture.
Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Manti Te'o, the institution of Notre Dame-- to name just a few cases in point-- exemplify the societally systemic tension between a staunch refusal to retract adoring hands outstretched towards the dragging skirts of athletic icons and the irrefutable knowledge of moral transgression on their behalves.
Even as Lance Armstrong admits to doping and is accused of blackmail to boot, we see articles about why people are not angry with him. He has done so much for cancer research and funding. He is a cancer survivor himself. However, can we please learn to separate Lance Armstrong the philanthropic activist and Lance Armstrong the professional athlete? I wasn't aware that heading a major charity absolved you of responsibility to follow the same rules of competition as everyone else. If anything, there should be more responsibility on someone in that kind of leadership role. But many people still hold Lance Armstrong's athletic career in high regard and legitimacy.
Barry Bonds was convicted on charges of obstruction of justice for lying to a grand jury, and was denied entry into baseball's Hall of Fame due to his steroid scandal. Many Bonds fans were incensed, and remain adamant that Bonds and his steroid-enhanced accomplishments were legitimate.
And if you find yourself reacting, jumping to the defense of Lance Armstrong, or Barry Bonds, or Manti Te'o, you are precisely the subject of my interest. You are the embodiment of what I find so puzzling, disturbing, and impossibly real about what I see as the transmutation and the traumatization of the American collective unconscious. In the recent case of Manti Te'o and his "girlfriend," Te'o's defenders, including the institution of Notre Dame, maintain that he was the victim of a prolonged online-dating scam. Manti Te'o and Notre Dame's combined actions of lying and enabling lies in regards to heavily traumatic events such as death and cancer in the national spotlight are inexcusable and inhumane, and neglecting to acknowledge them as such perverts and compromises individual and societal identity. And if that idea has you and your leprechaun pajamas shaking with indignation, I suggest you crawl back into Notre Dame's bleachers, for all of eternity.
The relation between truth and trauma is complex. A traumatic event, by definition, breaks the boundaries of the knowable, the sayable, the understandable. A victim of trauma might recount her experience of escaping from her overturned car immediately after a bad accident, might remember vividly the images, colors, feel of the air, of the ground, of her heart pounding, as she did so. And yet-she may have been trapped inside for a prolonged period of time until authorities were able to safely get her out. Did she lie? Is she delusional, schizophrenic, psychotic? She is trauma manifest. For her, breaking free from the car was true experience. Here is where trauma becomes so mind-bending, so transformative, so temporally skewing: In its presence, truth and historical accuracy are not necessarily analogous. Trauma rends them apart with a violence incomprehensible to the human framework, definition, and consciousness of reality.
A trauma victim will therefore lose the capacity to recount traumatic events the way they "truly" happened. I believe that this can happen on massive as well as individual scales-and I believe that it has happened-in combination with other psychological phenomena-on a massive scale within the modern context of athletically-constructed archetypes of the Hero in America.
Let me clarify: Manti Te'o is in no way a trauma victim, or a victim of any kind. Regardless of any ambiguity or lack of clarity that could possibly be found in his actions, Te'o lied repeatedly to national and local media. He told them he had met "Lennay Kekua" in person, detailing their first meeting in 2009 after Notre Dame played Stanford in California. According to his Twitter account, they met in 2011. His family lied, too, saying that "Lennay" visited Manti in Hawai'i. Brian Te'o, Manti's father, claimed to have congratulated "Lennay" over the telephone after her release from the hospital, two days prior to her "death." The timelines that Manti gives various news outlets of their relationship, replete with devastations of leukemia, comas, and finally death, are notably out of sync with one another.
However, I think courtrooms are the places where that conversation will develop. But the attempts to fabricate defenses of clearly culpable parties are truly chilling. It is notable how many people, in combination with the entire institution of Notre Dame, want to jump to Manti Te'o's defense. Enablers and sycophants want to parade him around as a devastated victim-- and therefore doubly the inspirational athlete-- in the face of what is in my opinion irrefutable evidence to the contrary.
But Notre Dame isn't the kind of program that lets anything impede their football success. Consider the adversity they had to overcome from the 20-year-old student videographer who'd had the audacity to die during Coach Kelly's practice. Lethal weather conditions be damned, Coach Kelly was the kind of guy who would do whatever it took to get that practice tape. And if anything tried to stop him-say, the death of the student he'd forced into filming atop a 40-foot lift under those conditions-he'd keep on truckin,' 25 more minutes of practice, everyone-what? Stop practice? These little details are the difference between the number one team in the nation and everyone else! Heck, I'll bet Alabama's videographers are dropping like flies and no one says shit!
Then not a month before that, they had to surmount the slightly jarring obstacle of Lizzy Seeberg, the 19-year-old girl who went and got herself sexually assaulted by a member of the team, and then had to really blow everything out of proportion and kill herself! Good thing the other guys had not only known about the incident, but had the good sense to understand precisely how to handle a sexual assault victim-extend her trauma by sending her text messages threatening her not to expose the football team by reporting an unspeakably traumatic experience that their teammate was accused of causing! And when authorities still had not questioned the attacker ten days after Lizzy had reported it, Lizzy took her own life.
Five days rolled on by, at which point they decided they might be able to squeeze in a few spare moments to question the player. They concluded he was not guilty, and that Lizzy's account was nullified because she had clearly lied-evidenced by the fact that her report mixed up whether her attacker had either made or received a phone call during the assault-his call log contradicted her statement. What a liar! Thank goodness they got that one straightened out-it's not like traumatic circumstances severely impede a victim's normal processes of perceiving, remembering, or even being conscious during those events, or like imperfect accounts of such events therefore serve as testament to a victim's traumatization and, furthermore, honesty-nope! Also, God is on Notre Dame's side, so it's all good.
Man, the Notre Dame football program had endured a lot, what with the annoying inconveniences of those two deaths, and ensuring that the media laid low in the processes! But Notre Dame persevered, and those kinds of past obstacles were just precedents and sources of strength for the Manti Te'o issue. Finally, a deserving subject of national attention, a cause truly meriting Notre Dame's collective, institutional defense and protection. High-ranking school officials, who had refused to even speak with Lizzy Seeberg's family in the aftermath of her death, shed public tears over the nationally-heralded linebacker and the lies he had fed to the entire country, assuring their audience that Notre Dame would get to the bottom of whomever was behind this cruel hoax directed at Manti.
We know all of this, watch all of it unravel, and then we cram ourselves into bleachers, find various justifications for dismissing these cases, and continue to idolize these players. Why? Is the heroic nature of athletes so deeply ingrained in our psyches that they can do no wrong?
The control over wide-reaching athletic narratives has shifted. The Athenian historian Apollodorus is our earliest source for recounting the myth of the Games; his account came several centuries after the flame was first ignited. I'm not meaning to suggest that we should let the proverbial dust settle for 600 years before historicizing or mythologizing. I'm shedding light on the parallels that make me believe that mythical narrative surrounding athlete-heroes is archetypal, as well as on the contrasts that exist between different time periods therein. The American archetype has shifted to include insidious, exploitative action, grossly premeditated by intimate, deceitful groups who attempt to create and command narratives of themselves, complete with fabricated characters, lives, ailments, adversities, and deaths.
Who controls the construction and dissemination of these narratives today? Manti Te'o answered that for us: He did-with the assistance of trusted, reputedly credible media outlets. Te'o spun this story, acting as though with impunity. And after the deeply disconcerting and undeniable revelation that the saga of Manti Te'o's leukemia-stricken, deceased girlfriend turned out to be smoke, mirrors, and a likely complicit liar assisted by some assortment of family, friends, and/or teammates, Notre Dame and its band of spiritual and intellectual leaders sprung into immediate action, action they had been preparing for due to their prior knowledge of the Te'o hoax, action merited by the deserving circumstance of a lying, opportunistic football star.
The frenzy of national media and outpouring of support from Notre Dame and its advocates around the morally reprehensible and deleterious actions of a football player, and the hurried, nonsensical attempts to corrupt and skew this narrative into a story of poor little Manti, victim of a mean online prank, would be almost laughable in their utter transparence if they weren't... oh yeah, real life.
Something weird happens when a destructive opportunist manages to grab a national, athletic spotlight, and fabricates an emotionally and socially exploitative myth. But something entirely different is happening now-- something which is severely undermined in its insidious, skin-crawling nature by any attempt to put its dangerous potential into words. Older, smarter, more experienced people, some backed by the largest media organizations in the world, others backed by an institution that not only purports to be a place of higher learning, but also one of higher spirituality, are collaborating in the perpetration of not only the initial myth, but another, in which the destructive opportunist metamorphoses into the pitiable victim.
I have a pretty visceral reaction when I read stories by columnists like Gregg Doyel, writing about the Lizzy Seeberg case, who make it their priority to remain balanced and unbiased, skating over the face of unspeakable tragedy. He makes his article thematically hinge upon the lack of knowledge, the unknown, the apparently indeterminable sentiment that shrouds the case, repeating that he doesn't "know what to make of it."
I personally feel a deep responsibility to make it my business to work out "what to make of it." And as far as I am concerned, anyone who does not feel accountable for that kind of reflection and attempt at understanding "what to make of" a girl who we know was threatened via text messages from various Notre Dame football players, who we know reported a detailed account of the sexual assault she endured, who we know is now dead after no action was taken for over two weeks after her report, who we know will not be able to watch as the players who did this are protected with anonymity and continue with their careers, is a coward and a sheep, evading their moral and social obligation not as a football fan, not as a member of the American democracy, not as a believer in the effectiveness of the American judicial system, but as a member of the human race.
Here's what I make of it. It is a trauma that has the potential to taint and haunt, to repeat and metastasize. The authorities who did nothing about her report until five days after her suicide will proceed with their lives and careers. The football player accused of sexual assault will run onto a field, cheered on by tens of thousands of fans. But that girl will never run anywhere or cheer for anything again.
When so many opportunities present themselves to allow outside observers to step aside and discount the reality of an egregious wrongdoing-"God is on Notre Dame's side," "there isn't sufficient evidence to bring the player to trial" (well, then, by all means, he didn't do it!), "only two people in the world know what happened in that dorm room," "I wasn't there so I don't know"-a nicely paved road, free from the bounds of adversity (the horror!) or accountability (shudder!) materializes, leading directly into the Notre Dame football cheering section.
Are we all trauma victims in these cases?
When I first began to consider that idea, it was uncomfortable for me. First of all, there is a slippery slope in these cases between trauma victims and the phenomena of massive cultural denial and apologism. Conflating or collapsing those groups is in my opinion neither possible nor moral. But how we collectively, culturally treat transgressions committed by athletic icons, how quick we are to want to "see both sides," even when both sides essentially scream the same thing, how culpability can be painfully clear and yet support for an athlete or program is unwavering, evidences a sort of disorientation symptomatic of traumatization.
To me, there is a severe dissonance between knowing that a coach made decisions to prioritize recording practice over the life of a student, between knowing that players on a football field walk freely after detailed sexual assault allegations were leveled against them and a girl killed herself as a result, between knowing that a Heisman candidate can exploit the sympathy of the entire nation and tell deleterious lies and still garner the protection of his university, and supporting that team. Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post essentially writes that for similar reasons, she can no longer support her alma mater, Notre Dame, and muses on the sort of blissful ignorance or breezy dismissal typical of many alumni. "Lucky them," she writes. I can't quite muster that amount of compassion. I have a different conclusion: Shame on them.
That kind of mass-repression can occur in the aftermath of trauma. The traumatic event will be relived through flashbacks, during which the victim will live the original incident for the first time. Because trauma breaks the boundaries of normal perception, by definition, a victim will block the event out as it happens; they will not truly experience it until a later time. Fans and onlookers who deny Manti Te'o's or Notre Dame's complicity seem to me to exemplify this kind of psychological pattern. And by remaining in the dark, in the crowd, in the stands, they both enable and relive these traumas in their inevitable recurrences.
When we let Notre Dame football players get away with sexual assault, when we let Brian Kelly and Notre Dame as an institution get away with neutralizing and neglecting situations that threaten their powerhouse football program, we enable a societal rape, and a societal murder. We enact our own traumatization in our surrender of agency. This surrender is transposed onto the realm of athletics, and incarnated by athletic icons in instances of their lack of moral accountability.
So what makes a hero today? Our heroes are the guys who run out onto the field through that fog, that darkness of enigmatic suicide, that haze of devised death, who mask themselves with that shroud through which we sometimes think we can glimpse blood on their hands. Sometimes it's hard to see from the stands, from our distance. But we can always tell what's on our own hands-yes, those are visible, frozen, perennially outstretched towards the field.