It's been an especially wild sports week in what typically is already a wild sports season, with BCS bowls and NFL playoffs (shamelessly showing my football bias, I know).
First, on Monday we heard the not-so-shocking news that cyclist and LiveStrong founder Lance Armstrong was going to confess to years of performance-enhancing doping, during a two-hour interview with Oprah. The shock waves you felt coarsing through the veins of America were not from the revelation of this news, since even the most naive soul had long ago accepted the obvious. The big deal was that Lance was finally going to admit it. For years the accusations came - and for years, Lance fought them viciously. One might even say maliciously, seeking to destroy the lives and reputations of his accusers with mob-like intensity. But now he was admitting to it all - the reasons for doing so, of course, we can only fathom.
Then, just a mere 48 hours later, we were treated to the most bizarre non-sports sports story since Tonya Harding hired a hitman to bash rival Nancy Kerrigan's ankle. Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman runner-up Manti Te'o released a statement saying that his girlfriend - the one who was in a car wreck this past fall, the one who died of leukemia mere afters after Te'o's own grandmother died - wasn't really his girlfriend. In fact, she never existed. The shock wave here didn't come from a young man fabricating a girlfriend story (gents, be honest, in your single years how many times did you make something up to save face?) This was a big deal because the saga of his girlfriend - a saga he repeated frequently in interviews - was a major storyline in the fall football season and a significant contributor to the "legend of Te'o" that had people outside of the sports world talking.
Wow. One can only fathom what craziness will befall the sports world in the next 48 hours.
This isn't really a comparison of the two sports stars, because they're very different situations. The former is pretty black-and-white: a megalomaniac willing to do anything to promulgate the aura around him, no matter how many lies he told or who he trampled under foot along the way. The latter - well, that's a little more grey. The verdict's still out because no one (other than Te'o) knows the full truth, although it appears (for now) that Manti was the victim of a hoax called "catfishing," where a fake online persona is created and someone is made to believe that persona is real. At some point, Manti realized he had been duped - this after talking openly to the press about his "girlfriend" and certainly embellishing elements of the truth. He was too embarassed to admit to it, and since the girlfriend story had long taken root, he let it keep going. He wasn't totally at fault, but he sure wasn't blameless either.
So this is not a comparison of the two. It's more of an observation. An observation about image - our image - and what we will do to further and protect that image. No one can fault Lance or Manti for wanting to put their best foot forward and show a side of themselves that leaves us thinking they're a freak of an athlete or a real human being who has overcome tremendous tragedy.
The rub comes when we fail to understand that our image is something that's already inside us, and instead see it as something that must be manufactured. Something we have to work to achieve. That's the hole these two guys stumbled into. Maybe it was strict ego, or maybe it was with an eye toward marketability and branding. Probably a little of both. But the reason you and I ever heard of Lance Armstrong certainly wasn't because of America's rabid appetite for the sport of cycling. It was because the dude beat testicular cancer when the doctors told him he had no chance, AND he won several Tour de Frances (which, when we started watching it on TV, we realized how ridiculously hard it is), AND he helped raise millions of dollars for cancer research. The reason we heard of Manti Te'o is not because he plays football - there are hundreds of collegiate linebackers out there. It's because he plays football at Notre Dame, AND he's a Heisman candidate and NFL first-rounder, AND he supposedly had a girlfriend who tragically died of leukemia in the middle of his senior season but kept playing well anyway.
Self-preservation is part of our DNA. We instinctively want to protect our image, because it's from that image that we get our sense of self-worth. And at our most basic and vulnerable level, we want to feel like we mean something to someone. The problem comes when we forget whose image we are made in:
“Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature..." - Genesis 1:27
I like the idea of being made in the image of someone besides myself, and not just because I'm a pastor. Being made in God's image means we don't have to work so hard to be someone or something we're not. Being made in God's image means we don't need to promulgate a caricature - or a downright lie - to make our lives meaningful. Being made in God's image does NOT mean we're going to live a mistake-free life or that we won't need to be held accountable for our actions. It simply means we don't try to maneuver this crazy life all by our lonesome.
I have no idea if Lance or Manti are religious folk, and that's not really the point. The truth is that these two are not the cause of the "made in the image of me" dilemma, but signs of the epidemic. There are so many ways in our social-media-saturated, 24-7 news cycle culture for us to refashion and remake ourselves into someone we are not. And it doesn't have to be about sustaining a brand or setting the stage for a multi-million dollar football career. It can be about simply feeling better about ourselves.
We don't need to work so hard to create an image to make us feel better about ourselves. That image is already inside us. It was put there by a God who loves us no matter what we do or don't do; whether or not we win any races or Heismans, whether or not we have an awesome girlfriend. I hope Lance and Te'o can move on and come to terms with the image of God within them. I hope the rest of us can do the same.