Sunday columnette: Lance Armstrong, Bill Clinton, Barry Bonds and you and meMay 29, 2011
OK, Lance Armstrong points out that he’s never failed a drug test. That’s something.
On the other hand, we know cycling was a sport in which many if not most world class participants used chemical means to gain advantage. We know a lot of people who rode against Armstrong were, in the vernacular, “dirty.”
So he expects us to suspend disbelief when he asserts that he was clean and he still beat all the dirty guys. Even after a couple of his teammates — though granted, Floyd Landis isn’t the most credible of sources — say he did the same kind of things everybody else in cycling was doing.
After all, it appears that no one has yet been able to prove that Armstrong did anything wrong.
Well, here what I think: Remember all those years ago when Bill Clinton said he’d tried marijuana but didn’t inhale? I understood why he said that, though it was a dumb thing to say (unless, and maybe even if, it was the truth). Why? Because although I’m younger than Bill Clinton, he’s roughly in my cohort. He is, like me, in my cohort, and our life experiences aren’t all that dissimilar.
And I’d be surprised to learn that anybody in my cohort didn’t at least try marijuana. Had Bill Clinton never addressed the issue, I would assumed he toked up fairly regularly for at least a portion of his misspent youth. Because that was what WE DID.
Certainly not all of us (but more of us than our parents suspected) dabbled in recreational drug use when we were younger. Some of us continue to do so — there are plenty of responsible citizens with considerable stakes in the world who still manage to make a connection every now and then. I don’t think it’s a big deal, though there’s no doubt that they’re BREAKING THE LAW.
Which brings me back to Lance. I don’t know what he did or didn’t do — I only know what I read in Sports Illustrated and see on SportsCenter. I’m not a big cycling fan. I don’t have any expertise. But if everyone was doping, that would seem to imply that it was part of the culture of the sport, something you had to accommodate yourself to in order to participate at the highest level. You had to make some kind of deal with yourself — either you doped and tried to cover it up and you competed, or you didn’t dope and you competed “honorably” and got your saddle handed to you. Or you were some kind of genetic freak who was able to compete without help.
Everybody — well, almost everybody in this country at least — wants to believe Lance Armstrong. And I sorta of did believe him — before his teammates started rolling over on him. Before people started telling federal investigators things about him that — if false — they could go to jail for saying. I generally think it’s a bad idea to lie to the federales — those guys do not forget and forgive. And rightly so, though I still have my reservations about the BALCO investigation and its yield.
But what do you do in this case? Lance says he didn’t do it, and he’s got the “clean” tests to prove it. Of course, you look into it, and you realize those clean tests don’t really prove anything. But he says its so — and if it is so, how would he go about proving it’s so other than by pointing to the record. Armstrong may be lying, but good luck proving he’s lying.
And what if he’s not?
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe he’s not lying — anymore than I believe Barry Bonds didn’t exactly what the Cream and the Clear were. All I’m saying is that both Armstrong and Bonds were in a situation where using performance enhancers was an option, and a lot — maybe almost everyone in cycling, maybe 80 percent or more in baseball — who were availing themselves of this option.
And Major League Baseball didn’t even have a rule against it. Major League Baseball, I submit, was practically condoning the use of performance enhancers. Major league Baseball was throwing a ticker tape parade for the most obvious ’roid heads.
When I was growing up, I assumed most football linemen and pro wrestlers, body builders and weightlifters, were juicing. And I didn’t think that much about it, because I understood that was what you did if you wanted to become big and yoked. I knew it was ILLEGAL, just as I had some vague idea that it wasn’t exactly healthy, but I understood that if you were going to pursue those activities you were going to assume some risks. What’s the average life expectancy of a NFL lineman? 56? I’ve heard 52.
I’m not saying that’s right — I’m saying its how it is. We like our bread and circuses. We’re willing to play guys a lot of money to smash into each other, and nobody really seems to think too much about the consequences of gladiatorial sport. We just expect guys to cripple themselves and die for our entertainment. And we think those guys are lucky because they have a few years of glory and get paid like rock stars.
I like to watch football. But I can’t watch it without feeling a little bit guilty about that, and if I had a son I’m sure I’d both let him play and worry about what he was doing to himself on the field. I know I don’t have the courage of my convictions — I wouldn’t want my kid to get hurt, but I wouldn’t want to deny him the legitimate pleasures and lessons of sport. Not that he couldn’t find the same sort of fullfillingness in another, safer arena, but I was an athlete and I don’t regret it (even when I have trouble walking). Life isn’t about risk avoidance, everyone has a right to choose what risks they will take and which they want.
Like, you can take a hit off this joint, and risk being busted and embarrassed, or maybe (they said) becoming a junkie for life.
When I write about this issue, there’s always people willing to jump in and make my argument for me. So let me say this unequivocally — I’m no fan of performance-enhancing drugs. I don’t think anyone should under any circumstances use chemicals to do better on the field. (Though even as I write that the other half of my brain is asking “Why not? If they can be safely administered by responsible medical personnel, why not use whatever means to boost athletic performance?”) I’m just saying that that’s what people do, and in the absence of bright line rules I don’t really know what you do with a case like Barry Bonds. Or, for that matter, Lance Armstrong.
Other than leave them alone.
Some of my friends don’t get this argument. They counter with: “But it’s ILLEGAL. Even if it’s not explicitly against the rules of the sport, the law trumps that. And it’s unfair to the other competitors to require them to choose between competing on a level field and BREAKING THE LAW.”
Well, I might buy that argument if so many of us didn’t break the law casually, all the time. For instance, if I hadn’t grown up when and how I did and I didn’t know that the chances are pretty good that any given member of my generation probably used some sort of recreational drugs at some point in his or her life. If I didn’t know that steroids were as common as they were (I was for many years a gym rat and I knew lots of people who used and sold the stuff), I might feel differently. I might be outraged at the thought that Armstrong might have doped, or that Bonds bulked up with the aid of chemicals.
Instead, it just makes me sad. Because what a lot of the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing sounds like to me is hypocrisy. Because a lot of the people who are most exercised over this stuff are exactly the sort of people I grew up with and around and I remember the way we were and I know how we are. A lot of us just don’t like Barry Bonds, a lot of us want to believe Lance Armstrong. If you voted for Bill Clinton, you’re likely to have winked at his tortured admission, and given him the benefit of the doubt. If you don’t like Bill Clinton, his words were more evidence of his oiliness. That’s the way we play the game now, we pretend to outrage and rectitude.
The way I look at it is that times change, circumstances sometimes require us to edit ourselves and it’s really none of your damn business what I did or didn’t do to myself with a needle. I don’t know who’s clean and who’s dirty or even what those terms really mean — I know if baseball hadn’t wanted artificially bulked up home run hitters they would have done something about it. I know if fans hadn’t wanted some kind of slo-pitch home run derby kind of game there wouldn’t have been one. I know I don’t want a president who’s so out of touch with the rest of his country that he could answer every question every journalist every threw at him without squirming around a little and parsing words.
I know a lot of people don’t play fair. And I’m not necessarily talking about the ones with the needles in their buttocks.