Until about a year ago when former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died, I had no idea this word existed, let alone what it meant. Since then, I've come to believe it’s about the most accurate term to describe most of sports journalism.
The word essentially means a worshipful or idealized biography. When Joe Posnanski’s biography of Paterno was released a few months after Paterno’s death, it was criticized for painting a glowing portrait of the coach and absolving him nearly entirely from any responsibility after it was revealed one of his top assistants had been raping young boys in the football facility’s showers.
I should note that Posnanski is an extremely talented writer who I enjoy immensely. Given the time constraints he was under (his publisher moved up the publication date by about a year, presumably to get the book on the market sooner to capitalize on the Paterno and Penn State being in the news), I don’t know if he could have done any better.
Then this week, two more stories broke that caused me to remember “hagiography.” First, seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong admitted to extensive performance-enhancing drug use after more than a decade of denials. Over that time, he bullied, intimidated and filed so many lawsuits against people that he couldn't remember who he’d sued. And for the seven-year streak in which he was winning, no one really questioned that a cancer survivor was able to beat every other cyclist in the world in the most grueling bicycle race despite the fact that rival after rival all would eventually test positive or admit to blood doping.
That didn't fit the narrative crafted by media members who were just feeding the American public what they wanted. "It's the mythic, perfect story, and it wasn't true," Armstrong told OprahWinfrey in an interview that aired Thursday night.
And just Wednesday, one of the most bizarre stories to come out of the sports world in a long time broke as it was revealed that the “girlfriend” of Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o , who was in a car crash that landed her in the hospital and it was while she was there it was discovered she had leukemia and died right before Notre Dame’s big game against Michigan State, didn't actually exist. Te’o stayed with his team (per “her” wishes) and played great to lead the Fighting Irish to an upset win and spoke about how much she meant to him in post game interviews. She was completely made up and existed only in the minds of people. As of now, we still don’t know if Te’o was in on the hoax or was the unwitting victim of it. But either way, it was a compelling story.
A star linebacker dealing with the grief of the loss of his girlfriend staying to play a great game is the kind of stories we read all the time, in this case, it just wasn't true.
Part of the issue is us. We look to sports figure to be heroes. They can do things we can’t do. I’ll never hit a baseball 450 feet (at least, not in one hit, give me two or three and I might be able to) or ride a bike through the French mountains faster than every other human on the planet.
In both instances, the sports media (not all, just most) wrote effusively about Armstrong and Te'o, continuing the feed the carefully crafted narrative that developed around the two stars.
It’s not enough for our star athletes to simply be amazing at their chosen sport. We demand they also be amazing human beings with impeccable character as well. We were all shocked Tiger Woods cheated on his wife because we felt like we knew Tiger. We’d watched him on the golf course make amazing shots and then, after winning a tournament, give gracious interviews and smile for the cameras. So why wouldn't he be a great father and husband as well?
I don’t see this changing anytime soon. Sports heroes are a part of our culture. They give us someone to look up to and inspire us. That’s the narrative anyway. Ultimately they’re just guys and girls playing games we played as kids, only they do it better than just about anyone else on earth. It’s great entertainment, but that’s all it is.
Let’s leave the idealized biographies where they belong, in the fairy tale section of library.