THE BLOG
01/22/2013 04:46 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Lance Armstrong, MLK, America and the Rules of the Game

"It's just the way the game is played.
It's best to wait your turn.
Just wait your turn."

-- "Wait Your Turn" by Rihanna

Last week, Americans witnessed the curt and often unremorseful admission by Lance Armstrong to Oprah that he did dope to win his Tours de France and the celebrity, fame and wealth that resulted from it. The reaction of many was ho-hum -- another athlete bites the dust by getting caught lying to the world. But I believe the stakes are higher now than most people realize because this latest fall from grace further deteriorates belief in the American Dream.

Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up for the Dream when he invoked the American ideals of fairness and equality to judge people "... not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." He believed the civil rights movement, by changing "the rules of the game" from color to character, would level the playing field for black Americans by eliminating racial inequality. He so believed in this possibility that he asked his followers to demonstrate their strength of character by adopting non-violence and the ideals of the American Constitution as their playbook. By and large, his strategy worked.

One of the foundational elements of the American Dream playbook is the presumption that if you work hard, have patience and play by the rules, you will have your turn to "make it" in America. This prescription for achieving The Good Life is one that's taught by parents and teachers alike. It's often reinforced in churches, synagogues and popular culture. The moral message of "The Biggest Loser" reality show is that through sweat and honest grit, you can achieve your goals. No fudging the weight-loss numbers; no diuretics or drugs to shed water weight: just setting goals, ethics, patience and hard work.

But the Dream and its playbook are under attack. To many young people, the American Dream is becoming pie-in-the sky. Taking its place is the win-at-all-costs behavior that was demonstrated by Armstrong: doping, lying and attacking others who challenged him. If this behavior were contained to Armstrong and not generalized within our culture, then his actions would just be a hiccup in athletic history. Unfortunately, it's not.

What's telling is that, in his Oprah interview, Armstrong stated that, at the time, he had no regrets because he believed "It was just how the game was played... (and therefore) it was a level playing field." Nobody got hurt.

But in a culture that believes in fairness, Armstrong's attitude hurts everyone because it calls into question whether fairness exists in the real world. It lowers the bar. Think of it this way: if MLK, instead of championing character, had lowered the bar for behavior, more violence would have engulfed our nation.

The actions and admissions of Lance Armstrong come in the wake of lots of questions about the real "rules of the game" in America today. Do we Do the Right Thing or Win-at-all-Costs? That's what our children want to know. Whether or not it's rampant -- and one could argue that it is -- to Win-at-All-Costs is becoming more visible, more frequent, more pervasive and frighteningly normal.

We've seen this Win-at-All-Costs behavior in all aspects of American life. We saw the actions of financial firms and banks during the financial meltdown that caused the Great Recession. We saw winning as the primary objective when the late Joe Paterno looked the other way while Jerry Sandusky abused boys. Even in our education system, we have seen winning trump honesty, such as recently when the Columbus (Ohio) Schools intentionally fudged attendance and achievement test numbers. Certainly, playing nasty to achieve a win took front and center in the recent election.

When "the rules of the game" are re-defined from Do the Right Thing to Win-at-All- Costs, then when it comes to getting ahead, anything goes. Clearly, anyone who doesn't play dirty isn't using all the resources available and therefore can't win. The replacement of the old "rules of the game" with Win-at-All-Costs is the real fatality of Armstrong and the real legacy he and others like him leave behind.

Making values like Do the Right Thing stick again will take a concerted effort on the part of leaders in education, business, government, religion, sports and the elephant in every room, media.

Despite the actions of Lance Armstrong and others, here are some of the rules of the game of life that were defined by 2,000 teens who came together last November for Project Love-Purple America's Kickoff for Kindness event: "Play by the rules; never give up on your dreams; stay true to yourself; be who you want to be, not what others want you to be; you can't change the world until you change yourself; give respect - get respect; rise up - stand for others; be the cause of the change; treat people how you want to be treated; forgive and forget; big or small, there is a difference only you can make!; and, never give up."

I'll add one more rule: As unlikely as it may seem, if you believe, it can happen!

To see America's shared values that unite us, go to www.purpleamerica.us or our Facebook page. Purple America's goal is to shift the American conversation to a respectful, engaging and productive dialog that focuses on working for the greater good of all.

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