Sports pages these days seem to be more about the Liars' Club than the athletic contests. One day last week the entire front page of the sports section of the New York Times was devoted to two blockbuster tales of deceit: Lance Armstrong's confession and Manti Te'o's confusion. I don't have enough time in my day to figure out the Notre Dame linebacker's weirdness; I leave that to the experts.
The wretched scandal that is Lance Armstrong, however, bears additional reflection if only to extract the merest gram of a lesson learned from the festering, fetid remains of his once-apparently glorious career, now exposed as a total fake.
All week, I have tried to work myself into a lather over Armstrong, and could only come up with one response:
Frankly, Lance, I don't give a damn.
Really, Lance, the best thing that could happen to you is to disappear. Seriously, get off the airways and stop taking up front page space. You have proven yourself to be unworthy of further consideration, not even a future Jeopardy! question, not even a block on some oldster's Hollywood Squares reunion. Slink away, hide yourself, take a vow of silence, flee to a monastery, do penance for your many sins, crimes and outright immoral acts. Give away your bikes and take up walking. Show some remorse, not just croc tears for the benefit of future options.
Cheating is an act of great self-absorption, premised on a narcissistic impulse to make yourself appear to be better than you otherwise might be --- to score better on a test, to write prose that is more elegant than what your own pen produces, to bulk up your blood with drugs so you can win races that your unenhanced body might lose.
Self-absorption is an essential quality of the media age, and cheaters who already have too much of that particular disposition may well relish the chance to "come clean" on air. Broadcast confessions may expose the truth of the act of cheating while enhancing the tendency to narcissism. Face time with Oprah is win-win for the cheater and interviewer both.
Even in his complete disgrace, Armstrong is held up as a media star, an object of fascination and speculation --- will we ever forgive Lance? When with the "healing process" begin? From Oprah, Goddess of Glory, to the lowliest local sportswriter, Lance must have an impact on our national psyche --- it must be so! Ratings do not lie! We love our sports heroes! How do we feel about Lance now that he's "come clean" and admitted cheating his way along the Tour de France --- not once, but seven times! Seven times! Will we ever trust our hero again??
Stop it. Lance Armstrong rode a bicycle. He was hardly a "hero" in real terms. Yes, he is a cancer survivor --- and we can be caring about that --- but I know plenty of people who have suffered the same illness, some winning and some losing, mere mortals who realize, perhaps more than most, that we only have so many days in our lives. We live in a world of massive human need with too few really talented people with the moxie and resources to heal the pain and solve the problems. We need more heroes of real human triumph, not graven images from athletic contests. We do not have time to waste in the co-dependent idolatry of athletes-gone-bad and the people who find ways to make money off their stories.
Can we learn anything at all from the Lance Armstrong story? Our faculty at Trinity and I spend endless hours searching for ways to teach today's college students about honor and integrity, about the importance of embracing an honor system that abhors lying, cheating and stealing. Armstrong is the latest poster boy for dishonorable behavior, and yet, on the playing field of deceit, he has many competitors. We don't need one more righteous lesson, we've already had too many.
So, Lance, you are not going to be my latest lesson on the evils of cheating.
The merest gram of a lesson learned in the Armstrong Affair is the powerful corruption of hero worship in sports, a lesson we've known for years. That lesson is one of the reasons why, in the past week, so many mourned a genuine sports icon, Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals, revered for his humble demeanor while achieving a Hall of Fame record in major league baseball.
The sports world could use a lot more of Musial's humility and a lot less of the cult of personality. The aura of celebrity feeds the self-absorption that leads to cheating in order to win --- win more games, more races, more public affection. The most suitable punishment for the self-absorbed cheater in sports is to turn off the microphones and pack the klieg lights away.
Justice will be well served on the day that we hear no more of Lance Armstrong.