"One reason sports are so widely loved is that athletic competition, in its purest form, is the last great equalizer."
Last Friday, the prominent journalist Buzz Bissinger (author of Friday Night Lights and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair) wrote a column for The Daily Beast about the latest investigation into Lance Armstrong’s alleged doping. It was called “Leave Lance Armstrong Alone.” I hate to spoil endings, but since the headline provides a slight hint, you’ll forgive me for revealing that Bissinger is fed up to his bulging eyeballs with Armstrong investigators. Too much time has elapsed since his alleged wrongdoings took place. So much time, in fact, that the actual evidence against him is no longer worth examining. At this point, we’d all be better off if we put on blinders and looked the other way.
If you think I’m being unfair, read the column. After ticking off the already familiar objections to the investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA)—It’s a waste of taxpayer money! He’s already been investigated several times!—Bissinger introduces the most ridiculous argument I’ve seen to date. We should give Armstrong a pass, he writes, because he’s a hero, and “the country has a right to at least one.” (Too many others have already been dragged down by our rabid, scandal-crazed media.) Even if there is strong evidence to prove that Armstrong cheated his way to seven Tour de France victories—and that his entire success story was built on a lie—it shouldn’t matter at this point because ... well, because his backstory as a cancer survivor is so inspiring.
In the next paragraph, Bissinger trowels on the classic fallacy that we shouldn’t focus so much on A because B is worse. “If Jerry Sandusky had been pursued with the same zealotry as Armstrong,” he writes, “he would have been in prison long ago and some of his victims would have been shielded from breaking down in tragic tears this week on the witness stand.”
That is certainly true. What’s also true is that the reason people weren’t looking into Sandusky years ago is that they were too busy trying to protect another of America’s sports icons, Joe Paterno. So which is it we deserve, Buzz: justice for the alleged victims of Sandusky or eternal belief in the myth of JoePa’s Happy Valley?
I’m not surprised that people are upset that USADA—a government-affiliated nonprofit that oversees anti-drug policies for all Olympics sports—has accused Armstrong of doping and the longtime distribution of performance-enhancing drugs. And I can understand being weary of the story, since this isn’t the first time authorities have been down this road. Most recently, the federal government spent two years methodically building a case against Armstrong, only to see it abruptly shut down by the U.S. Attorney’s office on the eve of the Super Bowl.
Armstrong fans have every right to be upset, especially if the slow drip of damning information that came out of what was supposed to be a sealed Grand Jury was indeed leaked by the FDA investigators as Armstrong’s legal team has charged. And I join them in feeling exhausted and burned after such an expensive, drawn-out process came to an end without any real explanation. What I can’t understand is why so many supporters feel that, no matter what the evidence is against Armstrong—and we still have no idea what the actual evidence is—it no longer matters.
It does matter. One reason sports are so widely loved is that athletic competition, in its purest form, is the last great equalizer. Everywhere else we look, the rules of society seem fixed, yielding predetermined winners and losers. Bailouts for the rich. Foreclosures for the poor. Sports are supposed to be one arena where your parents’ zip code and bank balance have no bearing on your chances of success. There’s a reason the term “level playing field” finds its way into so much of our current political rhetoric. It’s a concept we Americans love.
Doping destroys this ideal. It’s an insidious temptation that can take over entire sports—baseball, cycling, track and field—making the decision to partake that much harder to resist. Some people argue that Armstrong’s alleged cheating doesn’t matter now because the entire sport of bike racing was dirty for years. They point to all the riders who stood on the podium alongside Armstrong during his reign—Jan Ulrich, Marco Pantani, and on and on—who have since been tarnished or banned for doping. People have made this same case about the stars of baseball’s steroid era.