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Say it ain't so, Lance

I have been thinking of the famous baseball story, possibly fabricated, certainly embellished, that tells of a wide-eyed young fan asking his sporting hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, to deny his involvement in a conspiracy that had the Chicago White Sox throw the 1919 World Series. The breathless waif tugs at Jackson’s jacket as he leaves the courthouse where he has just given his testimony and querulously utters the hopeful words: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Jackson looks down at him and neither protests nor confirms his innocence but simply walks away.

Conclusion? A child’s innocence never to be restored. A sporting hero forever besmirched with the stain of dishonour. It matters not that Jackson and his arguably more culpable teammates were acquitted nor that many accounts attest to Jackson’s attempts to quash the conspiracy. Almost illiterate, he was no match for the wiliness and scheming of his colleagues and the White Sox lawyers who were happy to spread the blame. Without wanting to over-sentimentalise Joe’s diminishment, the game he loved banned him for life (precluding him still from the National Baseball Hall of Fame) and though he played on for a while semi-professionally, he basically took his medicine and retired to run a liquor store before succumbing to a heart attack at 64.

Do you know what Joe didn’t do? He didn’t go on Oprah. And based on the evidence he would have had a far stronger case than one Lance Armstrong to shed a tear and declaim the harshness of his treatment. But that was nearly a hundred years ago and perhaps matters like cheating in a major sporting event were more black and white. Then, the Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, decided that the sport would be sullied too much by allowing the likes of Jackson and the other conspirators remain in the game. It was a simple case of one strike and you’re out. But that’s not the way Lance and his friends in cycling rolled. A little donation here, a smidgeon of intimidation there and a whole lot of looking the other way over an entire career.

But I’m not really interested in the mechanics and minutiae of dishonesty, I don’t care how exactly Lance evaded justice for so long, how he coerced the people around him into participating and collaborating with him. A lot of that can be attributed to his strength of personality and the self-interest and moral lassitude of others. What concerns me much more is the moral grey area that he so successfully exploited. He was aware of a rich seam of ambivalence and ambiguity that could be mined for all it was worth.

What do transgressors consider before they break a law? Three things I imagine – the justification for committing the crime, how to succeed in the crime and what the consequences are if caught. Part of justifying the crime requires attaching a degree of weight to it i.e. how serious is this? How will people, how will society react? How will they judge me? Armstrong looked at the shady doping culture that dogged professional cycling and knew he could mix it up with the best of them because there was a tacit understanding in the sport that he was merely doing what was required to get the job done. He decided to go for it wholesale and to deny any wrongdoing more virulently than anybody had ever before witnessed. He just did what he thought he would get away with. And he was allowed to do it.

But why was he allowed to do it? Why was his systematic cheating facilitated? Because times have changed. It’s not a hundred years ago when an ‘innocent cheat’ was driven out of his chosen sport, it’s the 21st century where to be a success at the highest level is not just to dominate in your discipline of choice, it is to become a media warlord, a global super-being, a viral brand that simply can do no wrong. It is to be a master of smoke and mirrors and of public eye brainwashing. Modern audiences and consumers are so obsessed with celebrity and the latest ‘big story’ that they are not interested in right and wrong, they simply want the next ready meal of media hype which will serve them their opinion on a plate – “don’t think for yourselves, we’ve got this covered.”

How would Kenesaw Mountain Landis have dealt with Armstrong at the first sign of performance-enhanced success? That’s right, straight out of the game. No repeat transgression, no repeat success and no martyred interview on Oprah!

Grey areas are a necessary part of life and a crucial part of growing up and understanding the complex nature of human behaviour. But cheating is not a grey area, it’s black and white. It’s wrong, it’s dishonourable and it goes against everything that sport is supposed to be. Unfortunately, as long as there is a culture of tolerance and turning a blind eye allied with an uncritical and disingenuous audience, whether in the stands, behind the journalist’s desk or in the field of competition itself, there can be room only for contempt and dismay.

You can be sure in our modern era of sports empire-making and frenzied brand consolidation that sports stars will continue to be handled with kid gloves, their misdemeanours swept under the carpet and no one will care for the lone voice timidly asking for reassurance: “Say it ain’t so, Lance.”

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8 thoughts on “Say it ain’t so, Lance.

  1. Though not a dedicated sports fan I used to enjoy watching the Olympics. I enjoyed celebrating the triumph of effort skill and determination over human fraility. But unfortunately now one needs to include chemicals in that list and that for me diminishes the achievement and I’m left thinking ‘Ho hum so what’. Shame eh?

  2. I experience the same lack of enthusiasm when watching any sport now too.

    You know what WOULD be fun? To dope all the athletes up on weed and see how they fare –

    …”and lance armstrong is approaching the final bend, waayyy out in front, what a tremendous performance and … oh no! … he’s getting an attack of the giggles, he’s doubled up… he’s swerving off the course… etc etc

    THAt would be more entertaining at least.

  3. Money is what its all about,the days of just playing for the love of the game/sport are gone for the elite it seems . win at all costs is the mantra now sadly.

  4. Ironically Lance is what he probably has always most feared to be- a total loser. He cheated his way to seven Tours, it just makes you wonder about all the other sports ‘stars’ out there in all sports. In Britain they just blindly presume all their stars are clean, I suppose the show must go on. Beware the psychotic pursuit of excellence. Great article.

  5. Ben Johnson was recently interviewed on BBC 5live about doping in sport. 25 years on he still refuses to admit he was wrong. He displayed many of the characteristics of Lance Armstrong. Both said they were ‘levelling the playing field’. It’s frightening how deluded these individuals are. I know nothing of Armstrong’s youth, but I’ll bet there’s an interesting back story there.

  6. I think the public do care about right and wrong. Maybe the media not so much. It’s not a lone voice asking ‘say it ain’t so, Lance?’ its millions of people. Pro sport like virtually all institutions has let the people down. The public deserve better across the board. I agree though that pro sports people should not be treated like Gods. Footballers are talked up on telly like Gods 24/7.
    Lance wasn’t martyred on Oprah at all, I don’t think.

    • I’m not convinced, Dyl. I think a large section of the public views these affairs in an unthinking, uncaring way and just wants the next ladle of entertainment to be dolloped into their laps. I agree that Armstrong wasn’t martyred on Oprah but I believe that would be his reading of the ‘performance’. I think Oprah babied him, it was all too cosy and cuddly for the real Faustus to emerge. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Pingback: It’s not me. It’s you. | the ClearOut

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