We’ll get to the above January 2010 cover of Golf Digest with its fictitious pairing of Obama and Tiger in just a moment, but first, regarding Lance Armstrong’s confession to Oprah Winfrey* that he used performance-enhancing drugs. Rob Long, in the latest Ricochet podcast (behind the members-only paywall, alas), observes:
Here’s what’s interesting about Lance Armstrong: In a way, he’s sort of the sports version of Obama. Because for years, it was considered beyond the pale for people to criticize [Armstrong]. For years he was absolutely protected. He had his goons. In Forbes, a couple of years ago, Rich Karlgaard wrote a piece a couple of years ago saying that Lance Armstrong is a doper, and everybody knows it. And [Armstrong’s] guys, his PR team, his acolytes, his friends, just went after Rich. [Armstrong’s] rapid-response team was huge.
And in a way, the guy reminds me a lot of Obama. Like it was absolutely illegal to criticize him, and in a weirdly sociopathic way, frankly. We are seeing, with Lance Armstrong, a sociopath in action. I mean, the brazen lying has just been amazing for years. Now, whether it’s right or wrong; whether the doping really constitutes cheating, I don’t know. That seems like body chemistry stuff that I really don’t understand. But for whatever reason, it’s illegal, and for whatever reason, it’s hard to detect, but he did it.
And I love the idea that now in this culture, we go to Oprah; that’s the first person you go to. That’s our father-confessor; Oprah can forgive you. Now I’m noticing people saying, ‘is she going to be tough on him, or easy on him?,’ as if that’s the big story, how Oprah’s going to treat him.
But I know people who were such acolytes of [Armstrong] that they would become en-raged if you said that there might have been something funny going on. I hope one day that this happens with the Obama administration; that the fever subsides, the Vicodin leaves the system, and people start to say, ‘Oh my God, this guy’s a crappy president.’
The observation about Armstrong’s PR team circling the wagons sounds very much like an observation Charles P. Pierce of Esquire made about another sports legend after his own fall from grace. Which occurred almost immediately after the infamous Golf Digest cover reprinted at the top of our post went to print in late 2009, a Photoshopped illustration that if anything understated the overload of cult-like old media hagiography inside the magazine.
As Pierce wrote:
Back in 1997, one of the worst-kept secrets on the PGA Tour was that Tiger was something of a hound. Everybody knew. Everybody had a story. Occasionally somebody saw it, but nobody wanted to talk about it, except in bar-room whispers late at night. Tiger’s People at the International Management Group visibly got the vapors if you even implied anything about it. However, from that moment on, the marketing cocoon around him became almost impenetrable. The Tiger Woods that was constructed for corporate consumption was spotless and smooth, an edgeless brand easily peddled to sheikhs and shakers. The perfect marriage with the perfect kids slipped so easily into the narrative it seemed he’d been born married.
Anything dissonant was dealt with quickly and mercilessly. Tiger’s caddy, an otherwise unemployable thug named Steve Williams, regularly harassed any spectator whom Williams thought might eventually harsh his man’s mellow. The IMG handlers differed from Williams only in that they were slightly more polite. The golfing press became aware that stories about Tiger’s temper, say, or about his ties to unsavory corporate grifters, would mean the end of access to the only golfer in the world who matters. There is a quick way to tell now which journalists have made this devil’s bargain and which ones haven’t — the ones insisting that this “accident” is somehow “not a story” are the sopranos in the chorus.
But the more impenetrable Tiger’s cocoon was, the more fragile it became. It was increasingly vulnerable to anything that happened that was out of the control of the people who built and sustained it, and the events of last week certainly qualify. Now he’s got one of those major Media Things on his hands, and there is nothing that he, nor IMG, nor the clinging sponsors, nor anyone else can do about it. He is going to be everyone’s breakfast for the foreseeable future. (Among his many headaches, there is absolutely no way that the Enquirer quits on this story. See Edwards, John.) And he’s going to be some kind of punch line for the most of the rest of his public career. There is some historical irony in all that, and not just for myself.
The media can become equally and “unexpectedly” tight-lipped when it comes to breaking the truth about professional group sports as well, of course. An anecdote that made “America’s Team” at the height of their fame in the 1990s seem more like Sodom and Gomorrah’s Team follows on the next page.
In the mid-1990s, the story of the Dallas Cowboys’ “White House” broke. That was the residence located immediately adjacent to the Cowboys’ training facilities that a number of players rented to create an atmosphere that was Animal House meets North Dallas Forty. As the classic quote at the time from then-Cowboys offensive lineman Nate Newton went, “We’ve got a little place over here where we’re running some whores in and out, trying to be responsible, and we’re criticized for that, too.” But perhaps surprisingly, the local Dallas press was initially gun-shy in reporting the news, as Jeff Pearlman wrote in his best-selling 2008 history of the nineties Cowboys, Boys Will Be Boys:
The first member of the media to write of the White House was the Miami Herald’s Dan Le Batard, who merely mentioned it in passing in a larger piece about partying in the NFL. “The reality is that many teams throughout the league had places like the White House,” says Le Batard. “But the Cowboys were the biggest, baddest, best, and anything they did was vastly more magnetized.” Upon hearing Le Batard’s story, the Dallas media went to work. In truth, many were well aware of the White House and its going-ons, but chose to ignore the story in the name of player-press relations. “Everyone knew about it, but what are you going to do, run a story about the guys cheating on their wives with hookers?” says Rob Geiger, a reporter for KRLD radio in Dallas. “The writers understood not to write about, the radio and TV guys understood not to talk about it, because we’d be vilified by the fans, and locked out by the team.”
It was a gargantuan lapse in news judgment. The White House had everything one craves in a story — sex, drugs, fame, football.
ESPN executives at the “top of the food chain” reportedly found out that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend was a hoax on January 6th, which was one day before the BCS title game between Notre Dame and Alabama the network televised.
According to a report in BigLeadSports, ESPN allegedly sat on the story because it may not have been in the network’s “best interest” to report on the breaking news item before the championship game the network televised and heavily promoted.
As an Insta-reader notes regarding the Te’o story:
So in all the months of inspirational stories of touching humanity no sports journalist did any real journalism to contact the family/ friends/ acquaintances of the girlfriend? No classmates at Stanford?
But journalism is important and bloggers and Tweeters are kooks.
Layers and layers of fact checkers and editors.
But hey, this is just sports, the “toy department” of the MSM, as the late Mike Wallace once described his industry. It’s not like old media looks the other way when a politician screws up, right? No, of course not.
Related: Not surprisingly, I’m far from the only one using the “Liestrong” headline this week.