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In Defense of Athletic Lies and the Leaders Who Tell Them

In their youth, everybody hit .300, ran three-hour marathons, and could dunk. Why should politicians be any different?

Last week, Deadspin unleashed an exclusive story about Colorado Senate candidate Cory Gardner, accusing him of making up a high-school football career. The story seemed somewhat solid, as these things go; a historian at Gardner’s high school said flat out that “Cory Gardner wasn't on the football team,” and there appeared to be no record of Gardner ever playing. But within hours of the story going up, Gardner tweeted a picture of himself in uniform, the historian went back on his quotes, and the story fell apart. Deadspin editor-in-chief Tommy Craggs was left to, in his words, “eat sh-t,” in what instantly became one of the most entertaining corrections of all time

(Full disclosure: I founded Deadspin in 2005 and left the site in 2008. I’m close friends with Craggs but have had no editorial input for six years, save an occasional movie review. Most of the twentysomething staffers think I’m an old crank, if they even know who I am.)

The story then went through the now-familiar “liberal vs. conservative media” pseudodebate that makes the act of following politics so exhausting sometimes. (“Would Deadspin go after a Democrat like that?”, ad infinitum.) But no one thought to ask the most obvious question: Why in the world should anyone care if a politician lies about his or her athletic career?

This comes up every election cycle, as oppo researchers do everything in their power to dig up any potential niggle in a candidate’s life story. The Deadspin reporter on the Gardner snafu, Dave McKenna, had nailed two politicians in the past, at Washington City Paper: a D.C. councilman and a Maryland state House member who, amusingly, claimed that he played three years with the Dallas Cowboys.

Those are extreme, local examples, but such stories have gone national before. In an interview with conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt shortly after he was selected as Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan claimed he had run a marathon in under three hours—an extremely fast time—when he was younger. Runner’s Worldquickly debunked that factoid, and discovered that his fastest recorded run was 4:01. As tends to happen in a September before a presidential election, a brief sh-tstorm ensued, requiring Ryan to back off and admit that, fine, he’d never made it under three hours. Salon’s Joan Walsh blasted the marathon claim as another one of Ryan’s lies, claiming “he's used to the media letting him get away with outlandish claims. But this time he went too far.”

Wait: This is too far? Lying (if you even consider it lying; as the New Yorker noted, everyone misremembers their marathon times) about one’s athletic achievements is the bridge too far? There is a sense—from the Deadspin story, from the obvious glee any reporter has when they catch a pol in a lie on this subject—that this is a deal-breaker when it comes to one’s character, or fitness for office. But the fact is that everyone lies about their athletic achievements, even when they don’t realize it. This is everyone, from Hall of Famers, to the guys who mop up the sweat in lonely, dank middle-school locker rooms.

I once appeared with former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb on a television broadcast, and, off-air, we discussed how my Arizona Cardinals beat his Philadelphia Eagles in the 2009 NFC Championship game. He told me, in total earnestness, that he threw for 500 yards that game. He didn’t. He probably wasn’t lying; he was just mistaken—in the direction that people are always mistaken about their past exploits. Obviously, you can’t expect a player to have his exact stats at hand. But it’s funny how when we’re not sure, we tend to round in the direction that makes us look better, not worse. I played high-school baseball, and I’m 100 percent certain that I batted over .300 all three seasons I was on the team. If you ask me, I will happily tell you this. But it has been 20 years. If Mattoon High School still has records from the 1991-93 Green Wave baseball teams, I’d rather no one check them.

This is to say: It is definitionally human to overstate your athletic achievements, particularly when you are older and unable to achieve them anymore. The body ages, the bones grow weary, the flab extends into places it’s not supposed to be. In contrast to the decay and atrophy of middle age, the younger self looks even stronger, faster, and more vigorous, with better abs. Batting averages get rounded up, marathon times get pushed down, 20-point games get pushed up to 30. It’s an inevitable fantasy—just the way the human brain works. Asking politicians to reverse that is asking them to reverse basic psychology.

One of the reasons people love to go after politicians and their claims of athletic achievement is that sports—unlike politics—are quantifiable at their very core. You can spin whether or not you had something to do with passing a bill, or whether you were for something before you were against it, but you can’t spin a marathon time, or a varsity letter. The politician is a human being who sometimes misremembers or skews things so that they look better in the telling. Ryan understood this with the marathon story, making a joke about his brother running faster than him in his “admission” and noting that it set him up for some “ribbing.”

Even Deadspin’s story understands this: The actual lede of the story is: “Breaking news: Politician makes shit up!” It’s not breaking news. It’s not even news. It’s just a way to win a news cycle with cheap “LOOK, THEY LYIN’!” feints. Let’s keep this in mind as we approach the 2016 presidential election. Every politician thinks he or she was a better athlete than they really were. So do Hall of Fame athletes. So do I. So do you.