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Truth, with consequences

So here for your consideration are two icons, come down from Mount Olympus to mingle with the flawed folk.

One is a rank narcissist who played us all for fools, used his charity as a weapon to bully and intimidate anyone who raised doubts about his too-perfect narrative, and who even now is playing us in an effort to save himself.

The other is a generally goodhearted soul who either perpetuated a hoax in order to enhance his myth at a place where myth-enhancement is a cottage industry, or who was an unwitting dupe of grifters until he discovered the con, after which he became a witting dupe.

Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o: Two sides of the same coin, or not?

I say not.

I say there's a vast difference between one and the other, and most of that difference has to do with who got hurt. On the one hand, Lance Armstrong was a man who built his entire career on a lie and was willing to use, without a scintilla of conscience, anyone and everyone in order to keep the lie alive -- including all of those cancer patients whose inspiration, it turned out, was fraudulent.

And on the other hand?

On the other hand, Manti Te'o is a college kid who either invented a tear-jerker narrative involving a non-existent dying girlfriend, or was the victim of a hoax that both he and his university perpetuated long after the hoax was exposed.

As far as we know, Te'o neither threatened nor extorted anyone involved in the Lennay Kekau affair, nor did he use the hoax to sell Lennaystrong bracelets for however many bucks a pop. No, the only person who's gotten hurt by his deception are Te'o and Notre Dame, who, grifters aside, have become victims of their own actions.

So one party (Te'o and N.D.) was just dumb and/or desperate and one (Armstrong) was actively venal. Therein lies the difference.

The rest is all tied up with our willingness to fall for feel-good narratives, whether or not they stand up to any reasonable scrutiny. And so Lance Armstrong becomes a shining symbol of hope for cancer victims everywhere, even if he cheated to become that symbol. And Notre Dame turns a drunken ne'er-do-well (George Gipp) into a tragic hero, and Hollywood makes a movie about a plucky walk-on (Rudy) who -- or so Joe Montana claims -- was carried off the field not in triumph, but as a joke.

You can toss the Manti-triumphs-over-grief narrative into that mix now. And if we feel betrayed by it, as Te'o's story unravels now like a cheap sweater, we have no one to blame but ourselves for being so easily taken in.

Like I said: We love our feel-good stories. Emphasis on "stories."

Much has been written the last couple of days, and should be, about how all us sportswriters were so easily duped by Lance and, later, Te'o. And there's a lot of truth to that.

Especially when you read that ESPN writer Gene Wojciechowski couldn't find an obituary for Lennay Kekua or any record of her car accident, and yet he never raised an eyebrow. Or when you read the transcript of Sports Illustrated writer Pete Thamel's interview last fall with Te'o.

In that interview, Te'o was vague about how and when he and Kekua met. Vague about the extent of the injuries she suffered in her alleged car accident. Vague about when she "graduated" from Stanford, or what her major was, or how she managed to be running her father's firm in California while simultaneously teaching school and tutoring kids in New Zealand.

Any one part of that should have set off air-raid sirens. But all Thamel ever said was, "This is incredible."

Well, yes. Turns out it was.

And, listen, that's not to pick on Wojo or Thamel or even the sportswriting community in general. If we were gullible and too willing to believe, so is, say, the Washington press corps. No one's created, perpetuated or accepted with a minimum of critical thought mythology the way they have over the years. They make those of us in the Toy Department look like amateurs.

So what should we take away from all this?

Well, it's an old and very simple axiom: If something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

Some years ago, long before the accusations began piling up and the feds came sniffing after him, I wrote something to that effect about Lance Armstrong. I pointed out, gingerly, that it wasn't unreasonable to wonder how a guy who was literally on his deathbed suddenly became, within two years, the greatest Tour rider in history. Especially given cycling's record for being rife with drug cheats.

You'd have thought I'd insulted Mother Teresa.

The hate mail rolled in, a lot from cycling enthusiasts, saying how dare I question Armstrong's bonafides. Even though, technically, I hadn't done any such thing, only said it wasn't unreasonable to wonder.

Well. Now I wonder where all those letter writers are today. And if they're feeling as foolish as the rest of us are.

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