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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

11-time Sportswriter of the Year Rick Reilly Should Also Come Clean
January 17, 2013 - 6:01pm

Lance Armstrong is a liar. (And a bully.) Manti Te’o is either a liar or a dupe, or both.

These stories have preoccupied my thoughts as a kind of one-two punch, ever since the news of Lance’s confession hit over last weekend, followed by Te’o revelations in the middle of the week.

I’m interested in liars. I wrote about them before in this space.

I think mostly what I’m interested in is not the liars themselves -- their motives are pretty straightforward: self-interest, self-aggrandizement, self-whatever -- but the responses we have to the liars, how we react to being lied to, what those reactions might say fill my head.

I was reading the reaction of 11-time sportswriter of the year Rick Reilly to the news that Lance Armstrong confessed his doping sins to Oprah, and I thought how glad I was I had a blog because I have some things to say.

Reilly, by his own account, spent 14 years “defending” Lance Armstrong. On Wednesday, he says he received an e-mail “out of the blue.”

Riles, I'm sorry.

All I can say for now but also the most heartfelt thing too. Two very important words.

L

Reilly is angry that Lance Armstrong only has two words for him, especially after he’d “staked his reputation” on the fact that Armstrong was clean. He believed Armstrong, he says, because Armstrong told him, repeatedly, that he was clean.

I'd sit there with him, in some Tour de France hotel room while he was getting his daily postrace massage. And we'd talk through the hole in the table about how he stared down this guy or that guy.… And then I'd bring up whatever latest charge was levied against him…. And every time -- every single time -- he'd push himself up on his elbows and his face would be red and he'd stare at me like I'd just shot his dog and give me some very well-delivered explanation involving a few dozen F words, a painting of the accuser as a wronged employee seeking revenge, and how lawsuits were forthcoming.

And when my own reporting would produce no proof, I'd be convinced. I'd go out there and continue polishing a legend that turned out to be plated in fool's gold.

Reilly says he feels “used.” He says, Armstrong, “Made me look like a sap. Made me carry his dirty water and I didn't even know it.”

I don’t know about you, but to me, the 11-time sportswriter of the year seems to be kidding himself here.

Lance Armstrong did not “make” Rick Reilly carry his water in the press. This was, indeed, Reilly’s choice. It was by no means impossible to uncover evidence that Lance Armstrong was a cheat.

A  journalist for The Sunday Times, David Walsh, has been reporting on Armstrong’s doping for better than a decade, for just one example. Walsh continued his pursuit even as he was called “the worst journalist in the world” by Armstrong himself.

And neither is Reilly himself incapable of confronting possible cheats directly, as he famously challenged the former Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa to follow him to a nearby lab for an on-the-spot drug test.

And why has Reilly waited for Lance’s public confession to write about being duped when the evidence of Armstrong’s doping has been overwhelming since at least the USADA report on the systematic doping program Armstrong and his teammates engaged in that was released in October?

The question I kept asking myself is the one Reilly didn’t answer, but I wish he would. When Armstrong said he wasn’t doping, why did Reilly believe him?

I think, it’s mostly because he wanted to. For a lie to take flight it takes two, the liar and the person to believe the lie.

There’s a clue to Reilly’s motivation even in Armstrong’s e-mail to him, addressing Reilly as “Riles,” a nickname, a familiarity. Reilly makes it clear that over a period of years, the years Armstrong was at the height of his fame and power, Reilly had something very seductive: “access.” Rick Reilly is probably the most famous sportswriter in America, and the easiest way to become famous is through a kind of transitive property of fame. Proximity to it will, to some degree, rub off.

I’m sure it was cool to be in the room as Lance Armstrong gets his rubdown. It’d be a trip to get an e-mail from Lance Armstrong using your nickname. Maybe in Reilly’s head it just seemed right and proper for the most famous sportswriter to be buds with a very famous athlete.

There are numerous other examples in journalism where coveting "access" over truth has resulted in far graver consequences. Judith Miller, anyone?

I imagine that Reilly simply wanted to believe Lance’s story because it was the story he wanted to hear so the journalist could safely be pals with one of the most amazing athletes ever, to be called "Riles" by the man who charged up the Alpe d'Huez to victory.

At the end of his column, Reilly calls himself a sucker, he says he’s sorry, but it sounds hollow to me, or at the very least, incomplete.

In this case, the 11-time sportswriter of the year failed in his duties as a journalist. This is understandable, allowable, forgivable, but at the same time he offers no real explanation as to how and why this happened. Armstrong has come clean (maybe, kind of), maybe Reilly can too, and in doing so help us better understand the ways we all fail when we’re willing to believe lies, especially obvious ones. Reilly isn’t lying in his column, but he sure isn’t telling the whole truth.

Reilly specializes in human stories that deal with sports. Maybe he can tell his own.

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