Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o, and Miles Davis

There’s a poem by Terrence Hayes called “When the Neighbors Fight” that contains the wonderful lines:

We sit listening

To Kind of Blue. Miles Davis

Beat his wife. It hurts

To know the music is better

Than him.

I was reminded of those lines recently, in the wake of two major sports scandals: Lance Armstrong’s admission to doping, and the bizarre, emerging story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s fake dead girlfriend.

I have always believed there are great similarities between athletes and musicians. Both devote themselves to rigorous conditioning and training, endless practicing, and the end goal is always the same: perfection. For all their differences, musicians and athletes play an overlapping game. Classical musicians don’t share the same monetary success as big-time professional athletes, but popular musicians surely do. And the product all of them produce is manufactured for the purpose of our entertainment. We love our favorite sports teams, and we love our favorite musicians; some of us become borderline obsessive. They become our idols.

What I have found fascinating is when they betray us, and what we are willing to forgive, and to what extent we will forgive them. And I am disturbed by the pattern I sense, which is that forgiveness is in reach for just about anyone, unless they transgress within the boundaries of our entertainment.

Witness Chris Brown, whose successful career hardly sustained lasting damage after he beat his girlfriend Rihanna black and blue. Take this string of tweets from female fans after the Grammys. Take the #teambreezy hashtag on twitter and the way his fans leap to defend him from any hint of perceived slander.

Witness the student community’s reaction to the firing of Joe Paterno at Penn State after it emerged that he was at worst complicit in and at best appallingly negligent about years of sexual abuse committed by one of his coaches. The students rioted. When the university removed his statue, students stood there and chanted “We are Penn State.” One woman called it “an act of cowardice by the university” – the taking down of the statue, not the fact that the university’s athletic department was more concerned about its football reputation than it was about sexually abused children. After the NCAA announced its sanctions on the football program, students and fans reacted as if their world had ended, even asking, “Who got it worse? Sandusky’s victims or the 13 years of entirely unrelated athletes and student body of Penn State?”

You can even look at the case of OJ Simpson. Peter King, a writer for Sports Illustrated and Football Hall of Fame voter, tweeted last week that he would have voted for OJ Simpson to join the HOF again if he had the opportunity to do it over.

But Barry Bonds was denied entry into the baseball hall of fame because of alleged steroid use. Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his titles because of steroid use. Sports cheaters are the lowest of the low. So are musical “cheaters” – remember the scandal when Ashlee Simpson lip synced on SNL? Remember Milli Vanilli? You can beat your wife and still have fans, but if you break the compact between performer and fan – the compact that says that you, the performer, have a legitimate talent, that our faith and idolization of you is warranted – than you run the risk of losing everything. Need another example? Ben Roethlisberger.

The attitude seems to be that there is a wall between what one does on the field, or on the record (literally), and what one does off of it. But who erects that wall? We do. Even I do it. I listen to Florence + the Machine even though they produced an atrociously racist music video. It is easier for me to damn sports, because although I love football, I am past the stage of my life where I hero-worshipped athletes. But the truth is, the same laws apply to most entertainment. We will forgive a lot, as long as we are entertained. We can easily separate the art from the artist.

And maybe we shouldn’t. This way of thinking leads to situations like this. Some quotes for those too busy to read:

The rape was just an excuse, I think,” said the 27-year-old Hubbard, who is No. 2 on the Big Red’s career rushing list.

“What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that?” said Hubbard, who is one of the team’s 19 coaches. “She had to make up something. Now people are trying to blow up our football program because of it.”

Which brings me to the case of Manti Te’o. We don’t know yet how much he knew about this hoax; it stretches my credibility to believe that he was totally innocent; he may have discovered the hoax after it was getting him national attention and decided to roll with it. I’m sure it will matter very little to Notre Dame fans.

But there’s a real dead girl connected to the Notre Dame football program. Her name is Lizzy Seeburg. She committed suicide after being intimidated by members of the team after reporting a sexual assault by one of its players. The university hired its own private investigator to look into the Te’o case; the police department didn’t even get around to interviewing Seeburg’s alleged rapist for days. The athletic director wept openly at the thought of one of his players being duped; the football coach cracked a joke when asked about the Seeburg case.

This is all connected, our hero-worship, our willingness to keep separate what happens on and off the field. And it has consequences. We must, as a society, recognize this.

Miles Davis

Beat his wife. No one called

The cops until the music

Stopped.

We have to start acting before it stops.

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