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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

September 30, 2020: Sports Scandals: Lance Armstrong

[On September 28th, 1920, four key members of the Chicago White Sox admitted to throwing the 1919 World Series, a pivotal turning point in the unfolding Black Sox scandal. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the Black Sox and four other sports scandals, past and present!]
On two broader implications of a scandal that’s easy to pin on an individual bad actor.
First things first: there’s no way to analyze the Lance Armstrong doping scandal without focusing on multiple layers to the acclaimed cyclist’s personal mistakes and failings. Not just his years of breaking the rules to enhance his performances with drugs, and not even just his years of lying about that and calling accurate accusations against him a “witch hunt” or worse, and not even just his making hundreds of millions of dollars in endorsements throughout that time (making him at his peak one of the world’s richest athletes, and a great deal of which he has kept to this day), but also and perhaps especially the fact that he still seems to think he did nothing wrong. At its heart, the Armstrong story is about a talented athlete who also seems to be a pretty lousy person, character flaws revealed not so much through his cheating but rather through all of his actions and statements and perspectives that were brought out and amplified by that scandal.
But I hope that one of the things this blog has most consistently modeled over the years is that it’s always worthwhile to examine multiple sides to and factors in any story and history, and in the case of Lance Armstrong I think the scandals helps us analyze a couple broader elements to 21st century society and culture. One of them is our willingness to overlook system issues in sports in order to celebrate iconic athletes and athletic achievements. The blind eye that fans turned for years to the rampant presence of performance-enhancing drugs in the world of cycling feels quite similar to the willful ignorance with which baseball and its fans treated steroid use for the entirety of the 1990s, and for much the same reason—the home run feats of McGwire and Sosa and Bonds and company, like Armstrong’s multiple Tour de France triumphs (after beating cancer, on which more in a moment) offered sports thrills that we didn’t want to diminish by looking too closely at the men behind the curtain. To at least some degree, the same is true of our collective unwillingness to think for many years (even to this day) about head injuries and football—if sports provide escapist excitement, it becomes quite difficult to consider seriously the problems inherent in those worlds.
Sports often provide even more than escapism, though—they highlight figures who are seen as role models and treated as heroes. For many years Lance Armstrong, who returned from an extended bout with stage three testicular cancer to win all those Tour de Frances in a row and whose autobiography (published in the midst of that run of victories) was titled It’s Not about the Bike: My Journey Back to Life (2000), both presented himself and was portrayed by the media and world at large as a role model and a hero. I’m not saying that I necessarily agree with Charles Barkley that athletes should never be role models—we all (and especially our kids) can learn things from and be inspired by any number of figures, after all. And I’m not even saying that Armstrong doesn’t still offer such potential inspirations, especially to those dealing with a serious diagnosis; that part of his story and life remains present even with all the subsequent revelations and missteps. But as history reveals time and time again, if we simplistically idolize any figure, we are doing an injustice, both to the fraught complexities of human identity and to what we genuinely can learn and take away from those stories. Lance Armstrong is clearly not someone to idolize—but he is, at his worst as well as at his best, someone whose story we can all learn from.
Next ScandalStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other sports scandals you’d highlight?

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