Commentary

The not-so-fine line

It's impossible to separate Lance Armstrong's sins from the good he has done

Originally Published: September 4, 2012
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

Lance ArmstrongIllustration by Mark SmithHoward Bryant argues against those who want to absolve Lance Armstong for his sins.

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IT HAS BEEN, at least in the icon department, a costly summer. The monument of Joe Paterno, in physical and astral form, has been removed. Now the legend of Lance Armstrong has fallen too.

Paterno failed to live up to the myth of his ideals when it mattered most; Armstrong was finally exposed as a common cheat. But they weren't the ones most damaged by their spectacular falls. Those who invested in them, cared about them -- the truest believers who defended their idols more fiercely than a pet, child or parent -- were the most harmed. They are the ones who continue to hold on the tightest, who acknowledge the truth last. They are the ones who are, somehow, conjuring more faith, salvaging the good. Against evidence and reason, they are desperately attempting to restore the two frauds to their previously believed legitimacy. It is an understandable exercise of catharsis for the betrayed, but the rest of us shouldn't be fooled.

The safest haven for the betrayed lies in the murk, in the tangle of hypotheticals, uncertainty and questions that supposedly have no answer -- the comfort zone of unreasonable doubt in which Armstrong all too gladly volunteered to reside. It is the space with the least accountability, and sadly, many of the cyclist's faithful reside there with him. Take, for example, the position that Andy Roddick, an Armstrong supporter, offered after his first-round U.S. Open match: "I think when you're talking about it, it's tough to talk about it as a whole with what he's done as far as positive versus what he's accused of doing from a negative side. Obviously, regardless of what may or may not have happened ... but he has done a lot of good. Hopefully that won't change, because he's a pretty big symbol for a lot of people. It's almost bigger than his sport what he's been able to accomplish with his foundation."

This is not only a response that would make an English teacher cringe but is truly intellectual nonsense. More than any other athlete during the steroids age, Armstrong fought his critics, demeaned, humiliated and intimidated them. In so doing, he reinforced his honesty to his supporters. He had the power of celebrity, the power of money and so much cache that he knew the public would virtually always side with him. He challenged the anti-doping police to prove he wasn't clean, and they accepted, earnestly. When the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency finally cornered him -- leveling him with doping charges, which Armstrong had the right to contest in arbitration -- he gave up the fight, took no responsibility and simply walked away.

Even though he has been revealed a phony, Armstrong has been conniving enough to continue to control the narrative by refusing to engage, creating the ruse that he is the good man beaten by an oppressive system. "If I thought ... I could confront these allegations in a fair setting ... I would jump at the chance," he said in his much-scrutinized statement following a federal judge's decision to affirm the USADA's jurisdiction in the case. Like all great lies, his stance contains a kernel of truth. The USADA has much to answer for; its practices demand transparency and scrutiny.

What Roddick and all of Armstrong's backers seem to conveniently obscure, though, is that trust and belief were the root power source of Armstrong's symbol. The new narrative to which they now cling -- that no matter his transgressions, Armstrong ultimately did more good than harm -- is as dishonest as the man himself. For the good he did was made possible only by the ironclad belief in his legitimacy. It is unlikely Nike would have backed a known cheat with his own brand, or that cancer patients across the country and their loved ones would have been inspired by someone they knew was lying to them. It is hard to believe people would write checks to him when they could write checks to a more trustworthy source. Without the belief in his fidelity, there is no Lance Armstrong. The two cannot be separated.

There is no murk here, no complication. Just a stark truth: Armstrong sold his public on his name, and when it came time to defend himself with deeds instead of just words, he sold them out.

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