SportsProf

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lanced

How skeptical must we be now?

Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs.  Lance Armstrong lied about it.  Lance went out of his way to punish people who got in his way.

He's the cyclist who must not be named.

I am all for forgiveness and redemption.  People make mistakes, and sometimes the media blows a small mistake out of proportion preciptiously and wreaks havoc (see, for example, the Duke lacrosse fiasco, where many team members were guilty of relatively minor infractions -- such as public intoxication -- and perhaps acting much less than humbly on campus) on people who did very little wrong.  Our society is like that.  We tend to hold people to much higher standards at times than we ourselves could meet.  And when transgressions involve the outcomes in sports, they are viewed as being more heinous than things that in actuality are worse.  Perhaps because playing with people's hearts and emotions triggers an emotion in people that causes them to get vicious.

Betrayal.

I don't think that all of Armstrong's alleged good works exculpate Armstrong.  Lance was all about Lance, creating the brand, the aura and feeding his ego.  The good was a by-product, something that helped galvanize a false image.  While Armstrong should receive some credit for the good, the bad eclipses all that good.  Why?  Precisely because the foundation for the good was cracked.  If it were a building it would have been condemned before anyone was permitted to occupy it. 

Say it ain't so, Lance, say it ain't so.

But it is so, and now we're left wondering if anyone is clean, if anyone doesn't cheat.  And we're left with a culture that could send a message to young kids that cheating is okay, and that the only way they can get ahead -- even with talent and hard work -- is to ingest untested substances that can make them stronger, bigger and faster.  As well as damage them.  Just Google the story of former MLB pitcher Burt Hooton's nephew and read a chilling account about a young steroid user who died.  Just Google for stories about young cyclists in foreign countries who obtained EPO illegally, only to die from blood diseases or clots or heart attacks because they took too much of the stuff and turned the visosity of their blood into something resembling molasses.  While we seemingly read mostly about the success stories, the landscape is littered with the broken bodies, psyches and lives of those who just didn't quite get there. 

A friend once said to me that you never want to meet your heroes, because you'll only be disappointed.  He was right, but only to a point.  I have thought about that comment periodically over the years, and it has led me to a simple conclusion -- perhaps we have not chosen our heroes wisely.  Sure, it's fun to root for a quarterback who can thread a football between two defenders and into the hands of a receiver 50 yards downfield, where it's only a matter of inches if the ball gets deflected or intercepted.  It's great to see a basketball player hit a game-winning shot from half court, a pitcher throw a no-hitter.  But after a while, another question comes to mind:  so what? 

The late David Halberstam, in his book about Bill Belichick, recalled a conversation in which he asked the coach's father, a former Navy assistant and legendary football scout, whether he thought his son was a genius.  The father laughed and replied something to the effect of "Genius?  All he does is run down the sidelines of a football field in a sweatshirt and yell." 

Big names, famous names, people who do things in the public eye -- all are not necessarily heroes.  A hero is more like Hines Ward's mother, who worked two and three jobs in Atlanta as a single mom raising her only son, working to the point of exhaustion to make sure her son turned out well and navigated a world in which biracial kids didn't have it easy.  A hero is a teacher who offers encouragement and extra help to kids who no one has said anything nice to, in order that they develop self-confidence to make good decisions and choose a good path.  A hero is someone who, in the words of West Point's prayer, chooses the harder right over the easier wrong. 

Even where the harder right means a lifetime of toiling in obscurity, of risking not getting the glory and all that goes with it.  Even if it means hearing conversations where people brag, where people praise others, and where they don't say that you're something special.  How much do we need that ratification, that adulation -- from masses of people who do not know us.  And how much richer a life does one live -- mentally and spiritually -- because of that adulation?  Does it make us more loved, more intimate, less lonely?  Or is it better to be beloved by the people you mean so much to -- the people who live under your roof -- than masses of people whom you do not know and who might only want to know you to gain a financial edge because they do?

I take no joy at the fall of Lance Armstrong or of the fall of baseball players.  They are tragic figures whose self-inflicted wounds and poor choices befelled them.  What makes Armstrong's story worse than even those of the baseball players is that Armstrong held himself out there as a superior and went out of his way to defend himself and deny accusations.  Because of that behavior, the reactions are more visceral, the horror more awful. 

Why did Armstrong do what he did?  For what purpose?  Was it worth it?  Perhaps, when he reflects on all that he did, he can transform his tremendous will to compete into something that truly can benefit everyone.  He still is young, and there is time.

But this should be -- again -- a lesson to us all -- and, particularly, to people who identify with public figures and sports stars and perhaps don't have sufficient self-esteem because they don't do anyting "important."  And that lesson is -- think again.  You mean a lot -- to your families, to your friends, to your co-workers, to your neighbors.  Sure, you might not coach the Celtics, but imagine what a positive example you can be for the awkward kid who no one took the time to encourage.  You might not be able to bike 100 miles, but taking a family on a bike ride might be a great palliative to a stressful week, and the conversations had during breaks from that ride might change a family member's thinking on an important topic.  You might not be a U.S. Senator, but participation on the local school board might chance the curriculum to enable more kids to get better paying jobs. 

And if the Lance Armstrong story causes the average person to reflect on what a hero is, change his thinking and give the "average" guy the self-esteem to really understand that he can be a true hero, then we'll change many things for the better.

And none too soon.

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