In Sports, Championships And Fallen Champions

Host Scott Simon speaks with Howard Bryant of ESPN about the playoff games for the NFL and AFC championships this weekend, Manti Te'o's fake girlfirend and cyclist Lance Armstrong's admission of doping.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. I wait all week to say time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: But this is one of those weeks where the games almost come last. Lance Armstrong tells all, or not quite? The case of the girlfriend who never was. And, oh, wait, we've got some championship football games, too. Howard Bryant of ESPN The Magazine, epsn.com and ESPN the post-holiday cleanse joins us in our studios this week. Howard, wonderful to be with you.

HOWARD BRYANT: Hey Scott, face to face, finally.

SIMON: Hey, it's wonderful. Now as far as I'm concerned, you are the definitive voice in sports journalism on the issue of juicing, performance-enhancing drugs. Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey aired Thursday and Friday nights. What did you notice?

BRYANT: Well, I noticed that it was a major disappointment, I think, to any of his supporters. I mean, I think the big problem that I had with listening to Lance over the last couple of days was how controlled - how much he was trying to control this confession. And I'm listening to this, and I'm thinking, he's not sorry at all about this. And I always concentrate on the lives that he destroyed. I am really interested in thinking about the type of personality who would actively sue somebody when he knew they were telling the truth. That is very, very disturbing to me.

SIMON: This was a long-term criminal enterprise. This wasn't a matter of just one guy juicing. This was a long-term, sustained, multi-million-dollar criminal enterprise.

BRYANT: Exactly, and I feel like the major problem, too, is why is he doing this? I don't - this doesn't strike me as a man whose conscience has finally gotten the better of him, and therefore he needs to come clean and talk. Because that's not really what he's doing. What he's doing is still trying to shape some sort of narrative because he wants something out of this, and that something is to one day compete again.

Or maybe this whole enterprise is an example of him competing right now, but it's very disappointing, and I look at this, and I say we just live in an incredibly cynical time.

SIMON: Perhaps the strangest, best sports story of all time, Deadspin reported this week that the girlfriend of Manti Te'o, the great Notre Dame linebacker, who almost won the Heisman Trophy, didn't die before the big game. In fact, she never existed.

Now, he says he was the victim of a hoax. What do you think?

BRYANT: I don't believe it for a minute because we do live in a cynical time, and it just doesn't add up. It doesn't add up in so many different ways. And if he is the victim of a hoax, then there's - I think that the University of Notre Dame should lower its admission standards because this doesn't make sense.

I don't understand why you would date someone that you never met over a couple of years. I don't see why once - obviously he was embarrassed, he knew about this before the championship game yet continued to talk about her memory. So there's clearly some sort of attention grab taking place here.

I think that it is just another example of this celebrity culture that we live in and the lowering standards of journalism because I feel that one of the biggest areas that is actually important - most of this really is kind of silly - but the important part of it is that there was a major journalistic fail taking place here. This should have been ferreted out a long time ago.

SIMON: Before Deadspin got an email to follow-up on this.

BRYANT: Exactly.

SIMON: We have a minute-fifteen to talk about two big games, San Francisco 49ers versus the Atlanta Falcons for the NFC championships, the Niners favored by a couple of points. Atlanta has a better record, though. What do you think?

BRYANT: I love it. I love this matchup. Obviously, if I had to be biased because I'm an objective journalist, naturally - so those two go hand in hand, right - I think San Francisco-New England is the matchup people want. But I love Atlanta-San Francisco because both teams have so much to prove.

Atlanta all season has been determined to prove that they are a good football team, that they are a great football team, even though they had two near misses in the last couple of years. They're home. This is their stage. They feel like it's their time.

On the other hand, you had San Francisco, which had the championship game last year in San Francisco, and they lost to the New York Giants. So they want to prove, naturally, that they belong. It's a terrific, terrific matchup, and I feel like never underestimate anyone that's got something to prove, and both teams have a lot to prove. So it should be a good game.

SIMON: AFC game, can that fabulous Baltimore defense throttle the Patriot office and Tom Brady the way they did Payton Manning and the Broncos when it counted?

BRYANT: Well once again, another team that's got something to prove because Baltimore had a change to go to the Super Bowl last year, didn't get it done, and now the Patriots want to finally get that fourth Super Bowl. So this is going to be a great game, as well.

SIMON: Howard Bryant of ESPN. Thanks so much for being - good to have you here.

BRYANT: Oh, yes. My pleasure.

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