Anyone seeking guidance on how to be a decent person in our chaotic and violent world could do worse than consult John Stuart Mill’s famous essay, On Liberty, from 1859. One of the most influential ideas that Mill unpacks is the notion that—to generalize horribly—an individual’s freedom should only be curtailed when it begins to impinge on the freedom of another. It’s a concept that sounds great in theory but, of course, things get a little murky when we have to figure out where that nebulous boundary lies.
Take, for example, the seemingly benign case of the course-cutting amateur runner. On the one hand, if I’m participating in a race and someone else cheats, it’s really not my problem—unless the cheater somehow directly interferes with my progress. On the other hand, as I’m sure many will be quick to point out, if someone cuts the course and finishes ahead of me, it does impact me in the sense that I will be one spot further down in the results. If the cheating runner deprives me of a podium finish, or even prize money, the offense becomes more acute.
All of this came to mind over the weekend, when I read the sad story of Dr. Frank Meza—an amateur runner from California who was accused of cheating and hounded for it online. In June, Meza told the Los Angeles Times that the allegations were “pretty traumatic,” and that he was “shocked” when he discovered that there were hundreds of derogatory posts about him on the Letsrun message boards.
Late last week, according to the L.A. County medical examiner’s office, Meza took his own life.
To recap: Meza, 70, was a late bloomer on the marathoning scene. A lifelong runner, he only started competing in marathons in his 60s, but the distance seemed to suit him. In just a few years, he managed to improve his time from 3:19 to under three hours. Then, earlier this year, Meza ran 2:53:54 at the Sprouts Mesa-PHX Marathon in February and 2:53:10 at the Los Angeles Marathon in March. Both of these times are faster than the official world record for the 70-74 age group, which stands at 2:54:48, set by the late Ed Whitlock in 2004.
Unsurprisingly, these impressive results garnered Meza a significant amount of attention, which soon morphed into skepticism as the validity of his results was called into question. Meza had already been retroactively disqualified from both the 2014 and 2016 California International Marathons on the basis of suspiciously erratic splits and the fact that he appeared in few race photographs. (He was banned from the race after the second disqualification.)
After Meza’s 2019 L.A. Marathon performance inspired an onslaught of amateur sleuthing on the Letsrun message boards, the website Marathoninvestigation.com took up the cause as well, and subsequently published numerous photos from different races in which Meza appeared to be straying from the course. On June 28, organizers of the L.A. Marathon issued a statement that, after reviewing extensive video evidence, they had come to the conclusion that Meza had “violated a number of race rules” and that he had been disqualified. Meza, for his part, vehemently denied that he cheated, and said that he’d only occasionally stepped off the course to relieve himself.
Then, on the morning of July 4, Meza’s dead body was found on the bed of the L.A. River. On Monday, the Los Angeles County coroner's office announced that suicide was the official cause of death.
“He was targeted, bullied, and we tried to defend him the best we could,” Meza’s daughter told CNN, the day after his body was found. “He was so devastated that people could actually believe this.”
It’s important to emphasize here that we do not know—and may never know—the extent to which online harassment contributed to Meza’s apparent suicide. (Although, as his family’s testimony indicates, it clearly was very upsetting to him.) Nonetheless, his story has caused several prominent voices in the running media landscape to speak out against tearing someone to shreds on the Internet.
Meanwhile, Derek Murphy, the founder of Marathoninvestigation.com posted a statement in which wrote that he was “deeply saddened by Frank Meza’s death,” and that he wished for everyone “to be respectful and to keep his loved ones in mind.”
But perhaps the most telling response came, ironically enough, in the form of an anonymous post on the very same Letsrun board that, fairly or not, had done so much to damage Meza’s reputation. Someone using the handle “Internet is the worst thing to happen to mankind” summed it up like this:
“Doc killed him self [sic] today. Cheater or not a cheater, was this worth it? You all figured out he cheated in his races and got got [sic] him dq’d. Honestly, as someone familiar with USATF rules and a fellow marathon runner, thank you? But also, get lost.”
If Meza did cheat, he surely deserved to be disqualified. But did he deserve to be bullied by anonymous strangers, as his family claims? Surely not. Going back to the premise we started with, it also seems reasonable to suggest that someone who actually took part in one of the races that Meza allegedly cheated in would be more justified in calling him out than some random cyber-troll. Even for such an individual, however, there’s a point at which venting about Meza’s supposed affront crosses a line and becomes a separate affront in itself. But where is that line and, more crucially, who gets to decide?
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free from anywhere in the U.S. at 1-800-273-8255.