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Suckers for Superheroes


In the instances of Armstrong and Paterno, the media cheerleaders were far better writers than Broadwell. But their paper trails are no less cringe-inducing, particularly when you factor in that Armstrong, a lying, doping bully who used physical, financial, and legal intimidation to silence the keepers of his secrets, and Paterno, the cowardly protector of a serial child rapist, were guilty of far worse offenses than Petraeus’s peccadillos. Unlike Petraeus, they committed their sins not in the context of brave service to their country but in the desire to protect the fortune and glory they had amassed in sports. Yet just days before the already much-compromised Paterno was to face news of Jerry Sandusky's arrest in November 2011, Stewart Mandel, a Sports Illustrated online columnist, could still write that “we should still salute him” because “in a sport filled with misguided, misbehaved or flat-out devious individuals, ­JoePa remains our moral compass, as he has for more than five decades.”* Another typical journalistic enabler, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, wrote two books in collaboration with Armstrong to gild his image and also served as one of Paterno’s last defenders. “Try to forgive Joe Paterno” was the lead of her column last November in which she labored to absolve him by accusing her own readers of being just as morally obtuse: “Unfortunately, the truth is, youth coaches from California to Rhode Island have molested children at every level, sandlot to USA Swimming, and we hardly ever recognize the pervert. We usually shake his hand.” She would change her tune and condemn Paterno histrionically following the release of the Freeh report, well after the country had turned against him. She has yet to be as harsh in judgment about her “friend and colleague” Armstrong.

Jenkins and other Armstrong defenders frequently argue that he deserves special dispensation because his cancer charity, Livestrong, has raised some $350 million. Revealingly, conspicuous charity is a common element in all these cases. The Kelleys of Tampa tried to accrue social status with their scantly funded “foundation” for terminal cancer patients. Sandusky worked tirelessly for his youth charity, the Second Mile, that also came in handy for rounding up potential rape victims. Paterno’s defenders were vociferous in citing all the money JoePa raised for Penn State, including millions for that most unimpeachable of university causes, the library (to which Paterno was happy to affix his name). No one was more beneficent than Mortenson, who under legal threat has agreed to repay his charity, the Central Asia Institute, the more than $1 million that he skimmed for expenses and what the Montana attorney general labeled “inappropriate personal charges.” (Like Broadwell, Mortenson is also a faux author and tried to pin the fictions in Three Cups of Tea on his billed co-author, David Oliver Relin, who committed suicide at age 49 the week before Thanksgiving.)

However worthy their goals, these charitable enterprises also served as invaluable beards for our heroes’ more repellent activities. The independent-­minded journalists and bloggers who dared break with the pack and take on Armstrong and Mortenson had to risk criticism that they were impeding cancer research and denying Muslim girls in the Third World an education. But charity does not balance the ledger on Paterno, Armstrong, and Mortenson’s corruption anymore than it mitigates the criminal insider-trading charges against Rajat Gupta, the former Goldman Sachs director and McKinsey head who tried (and failed) to avoid a prison sentence this fall by enlisting testimonials to his good works from Kofi Annan and Bill Gates. Livestrong and the Central Asia Institute can only benefit from the removal of their founders.

There are various motives for press complicity in some of these ill-fated heroic narratives, starting with hunger for access to newsmakers. (The dying Paterno granted his last interview to Sally Jenkins.) Some of us just can’t resist a great story, so much so that we forget to ask the Journalism 101 question of whether it might be too good to be true. Among Armstrong apologists, the most honest in confronting that impulse may be Andrew Corsello of GQ, who was struggling in the summer of 2010 over how to acknowledge and yet somehow bat away the persuasive doping accusations made by Armstrong’s former teammate (and fellow doper) Floyd Landis. Corsello’s moral parsing is hooey, but his spewing-out of his internal conflict is kind of fabulous as he tries both to protect a heroic narrative against his growing doubts and to rationalize his hero’s crime even while granting no such leeway to baseball dopers like Barry Bonds. Not content to praise Armstrong’s comeback-from-­cancer story as the “greatest in the history of sports,” Corsello reaches for the cosmic: “Its measure of suffering and heart and improbability and internationality and redemption and most of all purity elevates it to the level of archetype and parable. It is aesthetically perfect … The story creates a relationship between him and the world that is qualitatively different from that of any baseball, football, or track god ever suspected of being a dope cheat. The story is shot through with magic—a magic we use to suspend our disbelief.”

*This article has been edited since publication to clarify the timing of Stewart Mandel's Sports Illustrated post.


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