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.”