Sadly, even Lance Armstrong’s contrition is contrived, it seems. His mea culpa to Oprah Winfrey — always guaranteed to bump a miscreant’s Q rating — is not actually about apologizing to his fans and coming clean, so to speak, about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. It’s about reducing liability and getting back on a bike in competition (in the triathlon; one assumes even an ego such as Armstrong’s knows his Tour de France days are over).
When last I broached the subject of Armstrong, it was not to declare his innocence, but to decry the relentless and costly pursuit of him by USADA. At the time, I had little doubt that Armstrong had doped, but I also had doubts about the investigation.
USADA’s report put those doubts to rest. The evidence is there and irrefutable, and that was plain when the report was released and Armstrong was silent. And he has been silent since, until he began calling people a few days ago to apologize for what was coming on Oprah’s OWN network Thursday and Friday nights.
There isn’t a friends-and-family plan large enough to cover the people Armstrong needed to call, and his plan had better have unlimited minutes, because now he has to apologize for cheating and lying. They are separate bad acts, but while cheating may outweigh lying in the sports world, and is no doubt a character flaw, it can (and has been) punished by that same sports world. (And no, I don’t buy the “everyone was doing it” argument that some of his loyal supporters still use. That’s the argument of a teenager pushing the parental boundaries, not a debate point for a grown man who is supposed to know right from wrong.)
Armstrong has been punished — banned for life from cycling and stripped of his seven Tour de France titles — for cheating, specifically for using performance-enhancing drugs. But there is no similar tangible cost to be borne for lying. Instead, a liar is punished by carrying that label for the rest of his life, for losing the respect of people who truly believe telling the truth is an important value, whether you are a prominent athlete or the those in the support car of life – those who are not famous and not going to be famous, but who manage to be honest in their lives without a spotlight to make them so.
I grew up in a time and place where people said “A man’s word is his bond” and believed it, and practiced it. After 30 years in the sports media, I’m not sure that time and place exist anymore. We see breathtaking examples of lying all the time, from baseball players who deny using steroids as they struggle to fit into last season’s hat to teams that deliberately mislead us about a player’s injury, or severity, or even location.
Armstrong the cheater saddens but doesn’t surprise me. Armstrong the liar – who lied and lied and lied some more about his drug use, then fell silent when the pudding finally contained so much proof even he couldn’t think of a way to spin it — surprised me. He could have come clean immediately and helped his reputation; instead, he chose to ride at the head of a peloton of lawyers who calculated when he would — no, could — admit what he’d done without increasing his liability. That’s when he lost me completely.
Americans are, by and large, a nation of forgivers, perhaps because at one time or another, all of us have had to ask for it. If you can look someone in the eye and say, “I was wrong; I’m sorry,” you don’t belittle yourself. You raise yourself in most people’s estimation, and you certainly do the right thing for your own self-respect. Calculating the moment when it will do you the most good diminishes the effort considerably.
So I am no longer interested in what Armstrong has to say. Why would I watch two nights of television featuring a man who has consistently lied for years, and who is apologizing now to help his wallet and his career? You’re sorry? That’s fine. Consider yourself forgiven in my book. But I was wrong about you, and I’m sorry. You’ll forgive me if I take a pass on anything else you have to say.