Lance Armstrong as a Product of our Obsession with Winning

I am in the process of writing a dissertation on the power of sports.  A timely topic considering that each season seems to bring a new story from sports that easily transcends the fun and playfulness that sports is intended to be.  When I first started researching for this project, the NCAA was finalizing their investigation into Penn State University and inflicting harsh penalties on a state sponsored institution that was involved in an unfathomable scandal that involved child rape and molestation.  All along this time, there have been countless stories from Major League Baseball regarding players who used steroids and other performance enhancing drugs.  There has been a major labor dispute in the National Hockey League which finally has been resolved, following a major work stoppage and costing millions of dollars in lost revenues for local businesses.  And these are just a few of the major national headlines . . . there have been many others that haven’t garnered the national attention.

Sports, as I am in the process of arguing, is a spiritual power.  It casts a shadow of power over all facets of life.  Sports are beautiful, life-giving, healthy, fun, and created by God.  But what have they become?  Lance Armstrong and his PED scandal is the stuff of soap operas – the kinds they can’t show on network television.  Dan Wetzel’s article has a really insightful perspective of the whole situation here.  In it, he goes on to state: “Armstrong isn’t necessarily a bad guy for doping. He is a bad guy for the way he used his immense power, fame and fortune to attempt to ruin anyone who dared to speak the truth to his avalanche of lies.”

Sports creates quite a dilemma when it comes to ethics.  It’s OK to fake like you are going to hand the ball off to a player, and then actually pass, or even more overtly, have you ever watched a team that’s really  good at running the triple option?  Deception is at the heart of most sports.  Deception, though, must be kept within the boundaries of play.  It’s not OK to slip a player off the slideline just before the snap and then throw him the ball – this is against the written rules of football (illegal participation foul for those officials out there – of if you’re feeling generous, 5 yards substitution penalty before the snap).  There are those unwritten rules of the game like not stealing the signs from the catcher from second base and kicking the ball out of bounds in soccer when a  player is injured . . . but how does all this fit into the larger ethical framework of the world?

MLB was apparently dirty for more than 20 years.  Players doping, injecting, and bulking up without any media scrutiny at all.  Watching home run chases and records falling, spectators fully suspended their disbelief – we were living in the age of incredible athletic marvels!  Truly God had blessed us to live in that time.   Cycling, it appears, followed the same course of action.  We love to see athletes at the highest levels.  After all, “Records are made to be broken,” we say.  But are there records that will never be broken – can’t be?  Without some kind of artificial help?  And is that artificial help always wrong?  Is it always unethical?

Those questions require more time and space than I intend to offer here, but I will say that Lance Armstrong represents a great case study for this tension.  Without his cheating, his philanthropy would have never come to fruition.  No yellow bands.  No cancer support network (at least not Live Strong).  And it catches all of us in quite a conundrum.  What are we to make of it?  If we can’t at least acknowledge our part in helping create the monster himself, I’m afraid we’ll never come to terms with the truth.  Lance Armstrong represents what we have done to sports . . . we have elevated it from the purpose it was created to serve – fun, pleasure, enjoyment, leisure, and have made it into a monster that dwarfs its powerful head into economics, medicine, politics, education, and everywhere in between.  Lance Armstrong deserves his share of negative attention, punishment, and the lot.  But he is not the only one to indict here.  Those of us who are insistent upon creating gods out of athletes.  Those of us who will enjoy the athletic events . . . and then ask questions later.  Maybe if we paid more attention to those who came in last place instead of obsessing over those who finish first we could solve some of our own problems.