© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Was Armstrong's Apology Sincere?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, ahead of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and inauguration date both being observed on Monday, we will hear about some of the less well known speeches made by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.. And some of the less well known bits of history around presidential inaugurations. That will all be later in the program.

But first we are kicking off the program with the Barber Shop. That's where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar. He's also the managing editor of the Crescent Post. That's a global news portal that aims to showcase diverse voices of the Muslim street.

Sports editor for The Nation and host of Sirius XM's Edge of Sports, Dave Zirin. They're all here in Washington D.C. And joining us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas, is Mario Loyola. He's a writer for the National Review - that's a conservative magazine - and a director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a research and policy group, a think tank that espouses limited government. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Hey. Thanks for that, Michel. Hey. Welcome to the shop, everybody.

DAVE ZIRIN: Hey, hey.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: What's happening?

MARIO LOYOLA: Hey. Que pasa?

MARTIN: Hey. We're doing it, man. So check this out. Anybody check out "Oprah" last night?


IZRAEL: I mean...

MARTIN: As if you don't watch her all the time.


MARTIN: Don't try to front.

IZRAEL: You curl up with some truffles and a half pint of ice cream. You know, of course Lance Armstrong sat down and he - it was more like a monkey bath. He really didn't come clean with the talk show queen last night. You know, about the whole issue of doping. And we've got a clip, right, Michel?

MARTIN: I don't know what you mean by he didn't come clean right now.

IZRAEL: It was like a monkey bath.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. He went right there. I don't know what that means.


MARTIN: Let me just say Oprah went right there. She went right there.


MARTIN: And started off with a list of banned practices like blood doping or EPO. Here's a clip.


OPRAH WINFREY: Yes or no. In all seven of your Tour De France victories, did you ever take banned substances or blood dope?


WINFREY: In your opinion, was it humanly possible to win the Tour De France without doping seven times in a row?

ARMSTRONG: Not in my opinion.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Clearly Oprah went to the Atticus Finch school of prosecutorial interviewing, (unintelligible). But along the way, you know, Armstrong did admit to using EPO, human growth hormone, cortisone - everything but Pop Rocks, really - to win at cycling. Dave Zirin, you're the sports guy. Earlier this week you said Lance Armstrong was done. Career over. Anything you heard last night change your mind?

ZIRIN: If anything, even worse. I think we might look at last night at the time where Lance Armstrong's career in the public eye, other than being brought into court on civil suits from the multiple people he's defamed, is done. He had two goals going into last night. One was to show the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that he was contrite and willing to play ball and agree with their findings.

And the other was to try to restore a measure of public respect, remind people what they liked about him. I would argue he failed spectacularly at both those tasks. He actually disputed the center of USADA's report, which was not that he used PEDs but that he actually facilitated...

MARTIN: Performance enhancing drugs.

ZIRIN: Yes. That he facilitated people on his team using them and threatened to fire them if they did. He said absolutely not when Oprah asked him that question and that's at the heart of USADA's report. And on the other side, reminding people what they liked about him, I mean, I thought he came across as positively reptilian.

IZRAEL: Right. That's why, for my dollar, Michel...

ZIRIN: Cold-blooded.

IZRAEL: ...he didn't come clean. He didn't come clean.


IZRAEL: Mario...

MARTIN: Well, coming clean and crying are two different things, right?

IZRAEL: Well, yeah. I mean, he's yet to have his Oprah moment where he's (makes crying sound) he tears up.

MARTIN: I just...

IZRAEL: You know, but there's certainly a B part to the interview. You know, but...

MARTIN: We have to talk about that because from the standpoint of, like, what it is that people are expected to show in terms of emotion is such a broad range of continuum of what it is that true contrition is. I mean, I don't need to point out how many public officials have cried all day long in public and aren't contrite about anything they do.

LOYOLA: But he made jokes.

MARTIN: But that's another...

ZIRIN: You know, he made jokes about the number of people he sued.

MARTIN: Well, I don't think that that was...

ZIRIN: That's the opposite.

MARTIN: OK. Let's hear from other people.

IZRAEL: Let's hear from Super Mario.

MARTIN: But what about Mario? Right. Because you're down there in Austin.

IZRAEL: Right. Right.

MARTIN: Which is where he lives and where the interview took place, you know, and where he founded his cancer charity.

IZRAEL: Right. What are folks saying out there, man?

LOYOLA: Well, I mean, it's going to really hit home here, because, you know, he's such an icon and a hero locally. I mean, I don't want to pass judgment on him, personally, but it didn't really seem like he regretted the doping itself. It seemed like he really regretted getting caught. You know?

IZRAEL: Right.

LOYOLA: And he even said as much. I mean, he regretted his comeback in 2009 because, as he told Oprah, we wouldn't be sitting here today talking about him. I mean, that's what he really regrets. And I think, I mean, two things really strike me when you take a step back and look at it broadly. Is that this is not just another superstar athlete doping. This is like the Al Capone of dopers.

I mean, he's lucky he's not being prosecuted under the RICO Statute for racketeering activities. I mean, you know, he seems to think that it's so normal. I mean, he seems to really think that nobody could've gotten to the top of that sport without engaging in this vast, complex conspiracy to dope.

And to me it just - what that indicates to me is that this is another professional sport that has become completely infected with this culture of corruption that is doping. I mean, Michel made a comparison to public officials a moment ago.

You know, this reminds me of how politics were in this country a hundred years ago when there was absolutely - practically no politician wasn't corrupt. You couldn't get anything done without bribing people.


LOYOLA: And I think that it has to go the way that that went, that Tammany Hall went where the program, you know, where the stigma is such and it's so damaging that nobody will go near it. And that's what has to happen in this sport.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Mario. Arsalan, for my dollar it wasn't so much about him being contrite as him setting up a rationale for his deception. What do you think?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. You know, to me watching the entire 90 minutes of that interview it made me feel like it was a hit man, you know, sitting in front of a district attorney, you know, going over very coldly and in a calculating way what he did. Again, not showing any contrition, you know. After watching that I don't know who would be more unpopular in America today, Lance Armstrong or the rock group Nickelback.



IFTIKHAR: But, you know, for me what was interesting and I think, you know, has been underscored throughout this whole thing is that he ruined people's lives.

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

IFTIKHAR: You know, going about this whole thing. You know, you have Frankie and Betsey Andreu, you know, who he sued for telling the truth. You have Emma O'Reilly who was the former masseuse of the team, who, after, you know, she essentially served as an international courier for these illegal drugs, he accused of being a prostitute and being an alcoholic.

I mean, you know, he was defaming people who were telling the truth and, you know, that takes it to a whole new level. I mean, he lied repeatedly. He distorted the facts. And he showed a complete disregard for other people's safety. And so, I think he would have a great second career as an NPR spokesman.

MARTIN: Well, he - oh. OK.



MARTIN: All right. OK. You went there.

LOYOLA: The boogeyman. Thank you.


MARTIN: You went there. Well, I don't know. Dave, I mean, obviously I think you've reported on the kind of legal jeopardy he could be facing now but if you all don't mind my saying, I thought, you know, with - I hadn't thought about or spent any time thinking about what his strategy was going into it or any of that because I just didn't care. But I think he told the truth as he understood it.

And I think it was very useful because he unpacked his mindset and the mindset of the people around him and the mindset that he brought to the enterprise, number one. I thought Oprah was genius. I didn't need any fake anchor outrage. I didn't need any fake anchor empathy. I just wanted to hear what he had to say, hear what the questions were. I thought it was a very interesting thing and I think we learned a lot about the mindset. I don't know. But you're saying...

ZIRIN: All right. That I agree with, about the mindset, but the mindset was something very disturbing that was on display. I mean, it bordered on the sociopathic. Remember what's most important is even less what the public thinks, less what USADA thinks, less what we think. It's what do the people who he wronged think? And the universal reaction of the riders he fooled, of the people he defamed, of the people he sued today, was utterly unimpressed with what he did.

Utterly unimpressed with his level of contrition. Utterly unimpressed with what he was willing and not willing to admit to. And I've got to tell you - the line that he drew in the sand where he said, yes, I was a bully when it came to defaming people, but I was not a bully when it came to facilitating drug use in my team, I mean that's a line that's going to get him, I think, in a lot of trouble.

MARTIN: What trouble? You've reported on the legal issues, because it's not just what the people - because that's an interpersonal issue, but when it goes into the legal process, what legal ramifications might there be from this?

ZIRIN: Well, we're already seeing it, but there is going to be a conga line, a Macy's Thanksgiving day parade of lawyers outside of his compound waiting to sue him for a portion of that $100 million fortune that he has, because everybody who he defamed can actually try to claim compensatory and punitive damages.

Now, it's interesting, referring to him as Al Capone in that regard. It's like he also admitted last night, really, to breaking a ton of laws, but he only admitted up to 2005. The statute of limitations just ran out, so he's also admitting to the actual things that he could be legally prosecuted for when he's not in that kind of legal jeopardy, but he's definitely in jeopardy in civil courts.

MARTIN: You know, can I ask you this, though, David? I don't mean any disrespect to this, because obviously there are a lot of - I know how any of us would feel if somebody as powerful and important as Lance Armstrong came down on us like a ton of bricks for telling the truth about something that was wrong. I mean I know that a lot of journalists have had the experience of being hounded and, you know, by, you know, important entities, both personal and corporate, for telling the truth.

But beyond that, Dave, I mean you're one of the people who've talked about, like, let's tell the truth about the sport itself, and he makes the argument you couldn't win at that level if you didn't...

ZIRIN: Sure.

MARTIN: ...dope, and guess what? Everybody was doing it. And I want to ask you, is that true?

ZIRIN: Yeah. But that's also something we knew before last night, because Lance Armstrong had all seven of his Tour de France titles stripped. The reason why they haven't given those titles to the people who came in second in those races is that every single person who's come in second in those races has also been found to have used performance-enhancing drugs. So we knew that there was this problem in the sport before he sat down with Oprah.

MARTIN: And anybody else? Does anybody else here bike? Any of you bikers? Mario, do you bike? Are you a biker too?

LOYOLA: Yeah. I mean, I have. Not as much as...

MARTIN: Yeah. Do you think that's true?

LOYOLA: Austin's actually pretty dangerous to bike in compared to Madison, Wisconsin, where...


LOYOLA: ...I went to school, but anyway...

MARTIN: OK. But do you think that that's true? Do you credit what he says, that you could not compete at that level if you weren't doping?

LOYOLA: Yeah. I mean I think - well, I mean all that's - all you're really asking is whether the sport has been infected with the corruption of doping or not.


LOYOLA: I mean if everybody's - you know, I mean if it hasn't been, then of course you can compete without doping.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we're going to talk about one of the other really interesting and really strange sports stories of the week, one of the strangest, most complicated stories I've ever heard. Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Dave Zirin and Mario Loyola are all with us in our weekly Barber Shop roundtable. We'll talk about, you know, what else? Manti Te'o's story. Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.


MARTIN: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are continuing our Barber Shop conversation. And now we want to talk about this very strange story involving Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o and the girlfriend that didn't exist. And in a few minutes we are going to hear from the well-known Mormon blogger and essayist Joanna Brooks, author of the popular Mormon Girl blog. We're going to speak to her because you made have heard that Manti Te'o was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormon church, and Joanna's going to talk about the importance of the story in the Mormon faith.

But first, back to the Barber Shop. In this week, writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, sports editor for The Nation, Dave Zirin, and Mario Loyola, writer for National Review.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. You know, this whole story with Manti Te'o started out really inspirational, kind of turned a little shady.

IFTIKHAR: A little shady?

MARTIN: A little shady.

IZRAEL: Don't we have some tape?

MARTIN: We do. Here, just for people who haven't followed this, he was a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy and part of what made his story so inspirational is that he talked about the tragic deaths of his grandmother and his girlfriend, who he says died on the same day. It turns out the girlfriend didn't exist. Now, here he is doing an interview with ComCast Sports Network last November and he's talking about still feeling the spirits of his grandmother and his girlfriend.

MANTI TE'O: I, like, specifically, you know, sense my girlfriend around me whenever I say hi to another young lady. I feel somebody just saying, who is that? Why are you saying hi? And I sense them. You know, I feel them whenever I'm alone. I feel them, you know, telling me everything's going to be OK.

IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel. You know, Dave, I've started calling him Manti Dynamite. You know, he's got the - he's got the...

ZIRIN: He's kip(ph).

IZRAEL: Yeah, yeah. He's got the pretend girlfriend - a picture of his pretend girlfriend in his wallet. You know, the website Deadspin broke the story. You're the sports journalist, obviously. How did all the other bigwigs like ESPN and Sports Illustrated - how did everybody drop the ball on this?

ZIRIN: Well, that's a great question and it's pretty much just simple as this. In the Internet age, a lot of these publications whose, you know, reputation rests on this idea of checking facts and being right and you can count on them, they've become more obsessed with being fast than with being right. And when you read - I read an interview with Pete Thamel, the person who wrote the article for Sports Illustrated, and he talked about, like, the fact that after the interview with Manti Te'o, he needed to get it done in two hours. And he - so you have to get something in in two hours. That's very different from the old method of doing things where it's not that you would - as one ESPN writer who got it wrong - he said derisively, what was I supposed to do? Ask for her death certificate?

It's like, well, no. You don't do that, but the first thing you learn to do in journalism school is, if you hear about a death, you look up the obituary, and you're not doing it to check if the person's alive or not. You're doing it just to make sure you have dates right, you have facts right. There's an understanding that when someone talks about a loved one who died, there may be some things they got wrong, so an obituary is a good place to start.

IZRAEL: Right.

ZIRIN: And both writers said they couldn't find an obituary, but that didn't raise a red flag for them.

IZRAEL: I think we live in this Internet age and Internet journalism, where people would rather have it quick than right and that...

ZIRIN: Exactly.

IZRAEL: ...disturbs me as an editor, as a writer. You know, I don't want writers working for me that are just getting it in quick. I want them to get it in right.


IFTIKHAR: Yeah. You know, I might be alone on this island, but I think that Manti, you know, could very well have gotten duped. You know, I think that...

IZRAEL: Arsalan Iftikhar, a true romantic.

MARTIN: Well, no.

IFTIKHAR: I know. Right?

MARTIN: That's what they say. Notre Dame hired private investigators to look into this and they say he was himself the victim of a hoax.

IFTIKHAR: Right. And...

MARTIN: A very cruel and sick hoax.

IFTIKHAR: And, you know, we saw Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick in a very emotional press conference basically not only, you know, doubled down. He pushed all their chips in - their green and gold chips in, you know, for Manti Te'o.

You know, at then end of the day, he is ultimately going to be judged on how he performs on the football field. Let's not forget, you know, we have, you know, Ray Lewis, who is retiring after this season, who was acquitted of manslaughter charges in the year 2000, and now, you know, he's...

MARTIN: It was obstruction, I believe. It wasn't manslaughter. It was obstruction of justice and the people who were ultimately - who had the primary charges in that case were acquitted.



IFTIKHAR: But either way, you know, we have football players who have been convicted drug dealers. You know, at the end of the day, I think that this too will pass for Manti, but ultimately I think he's going to have to come clean. He's going to have to do a press conference of some sort to, you know, fill in some of the gaps here and, you know, hopefully he can put this behind him before April's draft.

MARTIN: Can I ask Mario if...


MARTIN: Mario, can I just ask you, kind of - do you care?

LOYOLA: Well, what's been interesting to me about this whole situation is - you know, I try to be an understanding person. I can totally understand why you would have an imaginary girlfriend if you're a freshman in college.


LOYOLA: Now, as a senior in college, that's the mystery to me. As a senior in college, why would you need or want an imaginary girlfriend, especially if you're a superstar football player and, like, famous on campus? I just don't get it.

IZRAEL: I took her to get glamour shots on her birthday. I'm sorry.


MARTIN: Oh, stop it.

ZIRIN: "Napoleon Dynamite" jokes.

MARTIN: That's terrible.

IZRAEL: Yeah, that is terrible.

MARTIN: You know what? Let me posit, let me posit a theory. Dave, I am interested in what you have to say, but let me posit a theory. Let me posit a theory and the theory is that this was an emotional affair. I mean if any one of you - the married guys, especially - if you had an intense email relationship with a woman, I guarantee - and you never met her - I guarantee you your wives would think it was an affair.

ZIRIN: That's certainly true.

MARTIN: So I find it plausible that you could have an intense email relationship with somebody that you never met.

ZIRIN: I would...

IZRAEL: In the age of wireless, though, really?

LOYOLA: Yeah. In 2013 I would just posit, in response, that it would involve Skype or it would involve face time...

IZRAEL: Yeah, I was going to say - yeah.

LOYOLA: It wouldn't be this sort of like written relationship where you're just talking on the phone. I have to say something to my friend...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

LOYOLA: ...the romantic, Arsalan over here. Arsalan, you really only have two choices here. Either Manti Te'o is the most trusting, kind, amazing person, the sort of person who would nurse his girlfriend through leukemia to her death without ever having met her, in which case he should be removed from society and studied in a lab for the greater good of humanity...


LOYOLA: That's one choice. Or he was either part of this in order to build up his reputation for whatever reason, either because of his personal life or because of his push for the Heisman Trophy. Or it was the sort of thing where he started to be duped and then he realized it and he took the story and he ran with it.

MARTIN: Or being, or being - having a story like this is just, you know - because you're excellent at one thing doesn't mean that you have character in other areas of your life.

LOYOLA: Certainly.

MARTIN: I mean that you are a great football player, does that mean that you are emotionally coherent in every respect?

LOYOLA: Or you raise money for cancer and...

IFTIKHAR: No, but...

IZRAEL: Can I just also say - go ahead, Mario.

LOYOLA: Well, I was going to say, it doesn't mean that you're emotionally coherent in every area, but it probably means that you have a girlfriend at Notre Dame.

IZRAEL: Well, and can I just say for the record, I'm disturbed that we're talking about it, because there are not enough facts yet for me, for my meat and potatoes, you know, so I need more facts to come out.

MARTIN: But there are facts. The fact is she doesn't exist. That is a fact. The fact that he talked about her extensively in great detail, members of his family talked about her extensively and in great detail - I mean reporters who did these interviews have taped conversations with family members where they give great details about these meetings and how they met and why they dug each other and all these other things, and none of it was true.

LOYOLA: That's true.

IZRAEL: So for me...

MARTIN: So those are facts.

IZRAEL: So for me as a reporter, that sounds more like sizzle. That doesn't sound like the steak. That doesn't sound like the meat of the story.

MARTIN: No. I think the larger question is why do we care about a 22-year-old's personal life that has nothing to do with why we're actually interested in him. That to me is one issue.

LOYOLA: Well, one reason is - and that's very valid. One reason is college football is second only to the NFL in terms of viewership and attention in sports in the United States. Number one story in college football - Notre Dame's rise this year. Number one star in Notre Dame - Manti Te'o. Number one narrative of Manti Te'o's season was this tragedy, and I think that's why we care because it's like the rug's been lifted out from under us.

MARTIN: Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Well, and finally I think the biggest tragedy of all this is that when we hear feel good stories from now on when it comes to sports, I think that we're going to have a much more skeptical eye moving forward.

MARTIN: Maybe we should anyway.

IZRAEL: Yeah. Superman is dead, bro. I mean, there are no supermen anymore. You know, Clark Kent, Lance Armstrong, the sports figure as mythical, you know, god - I mean that's done.

ZIRIN: Well, what about Tim Tebow?

IZRAEL: What about Tim Tebow?

IFTIKHAR: I was just going to say the same thing. What about Tim Tebow?

MARTIN: Don't mess with Tim. Leave Tim alone.

IFTIKHAR: And that's hate week.

MARTIN: That's right. Hate week. (Unintelligible) hate week. We'll leave it there for now. Writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael. Civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar was with us. He's managing editor of The Crescent Post. Sports editor for The Nation and host of Sirius XM's "Edge of Sports," Dave Zirin. All here in our Washington, D.C. studios, and from member station KUT in Austin, Texas, Mario Loyola, a writer for the National Review and a director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

ZIRIN: Peace.

IFTIKHAR: Thank you.

LOYOLA: Chow, chow.

IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barber Shop buzz on the radio, check out the Barber Shop podcast in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.