Commentary

Too little, too late, Lance

Updated: January 23, 2013, 10:32 AM ET
By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar | ESPN.com

Remember when Spain's 2000 Paralympic basketball team was stripped of its gold medal when it was revealed that only two of the 12 members had disabilities? Or Tiger Woods' apology for "irresponsible and selfish" behavior? Or Reggie Bush's returning his Heisman Trophy for receiving improper benefits at USC?

Now it's Lance Armstrong's turn on the "I'm so sorry, please don't destroy my career" apology circuit.

Too little and way too late, Lance.

[+] EnlargeLance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey
George Burns/Oprah Winfrey Network/Getty ImagesLance Armstrong's admission of drug use came during an interview with Oprah Winfrey.

His public admission of doping just reminds us that the "steroid era" will not go away no matter what is done to put those days behind us. I'm reminded of "The Godfather: Part III" when Michael Corleone says of his criminal past, "Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in." I've been a big baseball fan my whole life, and it really troubled me to see how so many fine athletes tried to cheat by using performance-enhancing drugs. Sports is supposed to be a field of endeavor in which athletes attempt to excel, not in spite of the rules, but because the challenge inspires excellence.

Poet Robert Frost once said that writing poetry without rhyme was like playing tennis without a net. I'll take his word on the poetry part. But his meaning is relevant to sports. Playing a sport without rules isn't a challenge of individual or team achievement. Playing a sport on any kind of performance-enhancing drug insults the sport and all the legitimate athletes. Worse, it creates a culture in which winning at any cost is the ultimate goal. Even if the cost is personal integrity. The trickle-down effect of that on college, high school and even schoolyard sports is the child athlete saying, "It's not cheating if I didn't get caught."

Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong are two athletes who I once respected and admired for both their style and achievements. At the peaks of their respective careers, I absolutely believed that their success was gained by hard work and sacrifice. When they were finally exposed, it was so disappointing to hear they were cheating, and it was heartbreaking for me especially to see Jones face jail time and the total collapse of all she had worked so hard to build.

Despite the array of cyclists who tested positive because they were not as adept at cheating during Lance's seven-year Tour de France run, I, like many others, felt that his success was the reason he was always facing scrutiny. The competitive interaction of athletes on that level often produces an atmosphere of accusations and innuendo. From the U.S., it appeared that this was another way his competitors and critics were trying to turn his victories into sour grapes. Lance seemed to exist in a world above and beyond the desperation of his rivals. They were attacking him because of the obvious envy they had for this American icon and his ability to dominate the Tour year after year. When the truth finally emerges in these cases, there is always the group of supporters who cannot understand how they were so gullible. But people forget that the need to believe in the integrity of sports is so important to so many fans, and when that is taken away, something very meaningful has left their lives.

Many fans have expressed their hope that the poster boys of the steroid era will not be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this year, and I think that their feelings are justified. The players who got there without cheating deserve to be remembered for their integrity as well as their achievements on the field of play. Players like Stan Musial and Willie Mays played their best without the aid of steroids. The steroid era will cast a shadow on baseball that will last well into the future.

[+] EnlargeMarion Jones
Don Emmert/Getty ImagesMarion Jones pleaded guilty to lying about her drug use in 2007.

It seems that many people can be coaxed into taking the wrong path because "everyone else is doing it." It astounds me that anyone over the age of 14 would use the excuse that "everyone else is doing it." As a parent, I had to dispel that argument numerous times with my own children. Anyone who utters that phrase by way of explanation should be doubly punished. Once for the crime, and once again for using such a lame reason.

Here's the main reason why we should refuse to accept Lance Armstrong's apology: He damaged the careers and reputations of other, more-deserving athletes who should have won those races, received those endorsements, and been a role model for those children. When other athletes accused him of doping, he brought the full weight of his reputation to bear in order to discredit them. How much more his apology would have meant if he'd done it before he was exposed. Now, it's nothing more than damage control, which makes it even more despicable.

The many scandals caused by PED use can be helpful if our young athletes learn that their physical and moral health is not helped when they cheat. But that's a tough sell to our kids in a national sports climate in which football coaches pay bounties for deliberately injuring opponents and secretly film opposing teams' signals. There was a time when kids playing streetball honorably called their own fouls. Now, those same kids would be heckled off the court.

It's good that cycling now has more clarity about what happened during those years, and it would be even better if Lance Armstrong comes completely clean with the authorities of the sport.

It's time for a new day and new way in how we regard our prominent athletes. I hold a few records, including all-time leading scorer in the NBA. Someday, maybe soon, that record will be broken. When it is, I want to be celebrating that special athlete because his triumph is the triumph of will, integrity and discipline. Not his cleverness at hiding his use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA's all-time leading scorer and the author of several New York Times best-selling books.

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