Will the disgraced cyclist's Oprah interview be like the beating of a dead horse—or the final defeat of Jaws?
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) discuss National Hockey League's player lockout, for which there's little end in sight.
It's official: Next week, before God and man—or, more specifically, Oprah and her audience—America's favorite disgraced cyclist/cancer-survival-profiteer is going to apologize. Come clean. At the very least, explain himself. After more than a decade of self-righteous, intelligence-insulting denials, vindictive bullying, legal shock and awe and the most retroactively hilarious Nike commercial ever filmed, Armstrong is scheduled to appear next Thursday in a 90-minute OWN special that, according to the network, will be "no-holds-barred" and "address the alleged doping scandal, years of accusations of cheating, and charges of lying about the use of performance-enhancing drugs throughout his storied cycling career."
According to the New York Times, Armstrong has reached out to the United States Anti-Doping Association to explore the possibility of confessing—that is, in exchange for a lifting of his current lifetime ban from participating in Olympics sports, like Triathlon, which Armstrong just happens to compete in. How perfect. How perfectly Armstrong. The title of his hagiography was right: It's not about the bike. And definitely not about doing what's right. It's about doing what's right for Lance. Always and forever. As such, I expect Armstrong to tell Winfrey just enough to satisfy the uninformed, the people who still want to believe in the myth of Cancer Jesus. I expect a half-admission, maybe a quarter-admission, a few shots at his enemies and our entire anti-doping witch huntin' system. (Which, by the way, deserves some abuse. But not from a wholly discredited, utterly biased messenger). I expect about the same as what we heard from Marion Jones.
And that's a shame.
You know what I'd like to hear from Armstrong? Honesty. I'd like to hear him say that he isn't truly sorry—that he's only truly sorry he got caught—because no one who truly regretted everything contained in USADA's voluminous report (and everything else that didn't make it) would have done all those things for so long in such a systemic, calculating, ruthless fashion. Nor would they have tweeted this. I'd like to hear him lambaste society's irrational, hypocritical, unhelpful moral panic regarding performance-enhancing drugs in sports compared to performance-enhancing drugs in every other walk of life. I'd like to hear him puncture the myth that great performers are—by the very dint of their hard-charging competitive success—great guys, heroes even, and that if it took a man winning bicycle races to galvanize us about cancer, then maybe smuggled bags of EPO aren't society's biggest problem.
I guess I'd like a unicorn to win the next Tour de France, too.
Jake, what do you expect from next week's Armstrong maybe-mea-culpa? Should he 'fess up? Apologize? To whom? And what can he possibly accomplish?
Is it possible to answer all of your question with a simple "I don't care" or "What, do you want me to talk about Lindsay Lohan's latest drug bust too?" Or maybe a discussion of whether Mark McGwire used steroids?
You see, Lance Armstrong the meme appears to have become the nightmare scenario: a story that lives on just by virtue of having existed before. Seriously, what's left to uncover at this point? Short of a full confession (and like you, I don't see that happening), why should we care about whatever sad story Lance tells the world from Oprah's couch? What, exactly, is the societal benefit of beating the 10-times-dead horse that is this godforsaken story?
If this were all in furtherance of a real discussion about PEDs in sports, what "performance-enhancing" really means, and how to reform the system to make it a little bit less like West Baltimore in The Wire, that would be a discussion worth having. But that's not what's happening here. The vast majority of the Armstrong coverage is a combination of celebrity rubbernecking (watching and dissecting every moment of a famous person's fall from grace) and the gleeful vengeance of fans and media members still outraged by It's Not About The Bike, the people who believe Lance perpetrated a fraud on the public and is getting his just comeuppance. Lather that sentiment in "we need the truth" sanctimony all you want, but it's what is truly at the bottom of this increasingly sleazy Armstrong saga.
There are real, interesting stories in sports this week. The NHL is finally getting a collective bargaining agreement done, while Peyton Manning is preparing to start a home playoff game a year after everyone thought his career was over. If you need sleaze and TMZ intrigue, even the Lakers' current dysfunction is a more relevant sports topic than Lance, as is the conundrum facing the Baseball Hall of Fame for the next decade as all the Steroid Era-greats become eligible. I say it's time to shut the door on Lance Armstrong, media topic, once and for all. Hate him, love him—I don't care. There's nothing to see here anymore, folks. We're all gawking at the chalk outline of a story.
Agree or disagree, Hampton?
–JakeGuys, you have got to be kidding me. Would you watch all of Jaws but change channels just before Brody blows up the shark? Would you sit through 99 percent of Mel Gibson's Hamlet then skip the finale swordfight? This is the good part, kids. This is where the bad guy gets it. Don't you even tell me not to watch.
We live in a cynical age, but the sheer depth of Armstrong's betrayal is shattering. What did Pete Rose do? Bet on games. Tiger Woods cheated on his wife. Lance Armstrong was allegedly at the center of the most efficient illegal doping operation in the history of professional sports, and you guys want to blame everyone but him. Don't give me this "The fault lies not in our stars, but ourselves" crap. The fault here lies with just one man.
Jake, you've got a lot of nerve calling the American people sanctimonious. Armstrong made millions defrauding the world, systematically corrupting an already troubled sport. Now this this lying, cheating, manipulative bully is finally going to apologize to the public he cheated. You want to blame public for it? You think that American celebrity culture is the problem? Please. He's lucky not to be in jail. Instead he'll probably get a reality TV show and keep living rock a rock star. Yeah, we're so mean and vengeful.
Patrick, you also blame the victims. You think the problem is that Americans are just too darn too naïve about our athletes and hypocritical about drugs. Come on. Has it really become too much for us to ask that our star athletes also be decent people? Have our standards fallen that low? We shouldn't even ask for a good player to be a good role model too? That's unacceptable to me, and, I pray, to the rest of the world.
Sure, greatness can always have a dark side, and we all have flaws. Yet somehow dozens of hall-of-fame caliber athletes in every sport manage to win without being terrible human beings.
More importantly, they manage to win within the rules.
You may be right that our attitudes about steroids and HGH need to change, but that doesn't have a thing to do with the fact that Lance cheated to win races. Our attitudes don't need to change about things like, say, refrigerating your own blood and injecting it back into your body before competing and making others do the same.
For what Lance should say to Oprah, ask one of his PR consultants. I'd say beg for mercy, but Patrick's idea of flipping the script and giving the county good tongue-lashing about idol worship might work. Frankly, what he says doesn't matter much to me. Lance will be compelling TV because it's always interesting to watch people lie. But the real fun will be Oprah's disapproval. She crushed the author James Frey, humiliating him in front of all humanity, and all he did was make up some of his memoir A Million Little Pieces.
Armstrong's crimes were far worse. Here's hoping Winfrey makes him pay dearly. The people he hurt need it. Here's hoping that she jams that air tank firmly into the shark's mouth and shoots true. Here's hoping that she cuffs him to the sinking houseboat, Max Cady-style, and he goes down speaking in tongues. This isn't revenge, guys. It's not even justice. But it's our chance to finally see Hans Gruber fall backwards off a building. Of course I'm going to watch.
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