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Sports figures, social media not always good mix

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Try to imagine social media being around when Babe Ruth was belting tape-measure home runs for the New York Yankees during the 1920s and early ’30s.

One person’s Twitter account would display a photograph of the Babe stepping out of a hotel with a babe on each arm. Another might detail the seven hot dogs Ruth scarfed down or the alcohol quantities that spilled one of the sport’s true immortals from his bar stool.

Now try it with Joe DiMaggio (“The blonde he was with looked familiar”), Julius Erving (“That is one tall ’fro”), Michael Jordan (“He had on the most hideous golf pants and ordered a BLT at the turn”) or any other relatively charismatic sports icon from generations past.

In light of the separate controversies swirling around cyclist Lance Armstrong and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, maybe the less we know about our sports heroes the better.

This isn’t to suggest technological advancements are solely to blame for their fast-fading reputations. Both men did this to themselves, Armstrong arrogantly using performance enhancing drugs en route to seven Tour de France titles and Te’o allegedly creating a girlfriend — a deceased one at that — for reasons we may never quite fully comprehend.

There are countless more examples of athletes and coaches using questionable judgment. And if they’re lucky, the rest of us won’t know about it until years later or, better still, not at all.

Social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, blogging, etc., only make it more difficult for a story — good or bad — to go away. The right to post one’s opinion (or two, or 12) keeps old news fresh, but this is, after all, the United States of America, proud home of the First Amendment.

One of the negative byproducts of prominent male and female athletes constantly being scrutinized online and through cellphones is that the negativity eventually trickles down to the children of this country.

Kids for the most part want someone besides their parents to look up to. Think back to the Jordan poster you had on your bedroom wall. Or the one of Joe Montana or, in the case of girls, maybe women’s soccer players such as Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain.

We knew they were phenomenal athletes, and that’s basically it. We idolized them for the manner in which they dunked a basketball, threw perfect spirals, skillfully navigated a soccer ball down field with their feet. The air of mystery surrounding our heroes only made them more alluring to us.

Yes, you wanted to be like Mike. In 1987. But would that be the case if Jordan was a 20-something today, a man in the prime of his marvelous NBA career? Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s weird, really. Armstrong graced the cover of Sports Illustrated a total of 13 times, including being named the publication’s Sportsman of the Year in 2002. Now he’s better known for sitting across from Oprah Winfrey and smugly giving answers he stupidly believes are going to salvage his reputation.

Te’o made SI‘s cover in September as it became evident Notre Dame was again moving back toward being a relevant force in college football. He was a feel-good story within another feel-good story, the heart and soul of an overachieving team that continued to defy odds with come-from-behind victories.

Now he’s a joke told in work break rooms everywhere.

Just the other day a friend texted me an attachment that on the left showed a picture of Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron with his arm around his girlfriend, Katherine Webb, a former Miss Alabama. The photo on the right had an imposter who slightly resembled Te’o with his left arm around what appeared to be a large doll.

Armstrong and Te’o wish the sordid details chasing both their names would simply go away, but they won’t. To some degree they’ll have social media to blame.

Good thing the Babe isn’t around to see this.

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