When I heard the news about Lance Armstrong being busted for PED’s and being stripped of his titles, I didn’t flinch. I didn’t get angry or upset. I didn’t hop on my moral high horse or mighty steed of judgement, either. Certainly, I wasn’t surprised that in a sport seemingly teeming with cheaters that the very face of the sport turned out to be one of them. If I had to sum up my reaction in a single word it would probably be, “Oh.”
We all loved the story of Lance overcoming cancer to win 7 Tour de France’s while building his own brand around hope and some degree of integrity. Heck, I’m wearing a “Livestrong” bracelet as I type this. To some level, we put Armstrong on a pedestal and deemed him a hero without even being asked to.
And that’s where we went wrong.
You would think by now that we would have known better by now, but we still did it. Much like our fallen baseball heroes, we didn’t want to believe that they were cheaters or “liars”. We took solace in the idea that among a sea of those taking shortcuts that our idols were great because they were above the influence and that their greatness was the bi-product of early mornings and late nights. I’m not here to debate whether their choices were right or wrong, but I will say that we did forget that they too are human beings that are susceptible to the same pressures us “normal” folk are.
In the same way that fans expect this great blind loyalty from their favorite players, we forget that they don’t owe us anything, and that’s what it sounds like when people utter phrases like, “They lied to us!”, yet there is no “us”; it’s a business first and foremost. Much like players don’t choose to stay in a city because a lot of people own their jersey, they know that if they want to stay in this business that they have to do what it takes to stay with the field, and that’s where the line begins to blur for some. Do you take the moral high road or try to keep up with everyone else to ensure your family’s long-term well-being no matter what? Or as it’s called in Albuquerque, “The Walter White Crossroad”.
I’ve heard the cries of people who argue that there have been great and talented athletes who didn’t need to use to be great, like Barry Bonds, and there is a point to be had there. What if a great player like LeBron, Dwight or even our own Kevin Love took that extra edge? It’s terrifying to imagine those guys becoming bigger, faster and stronger almost overnight. What if Ricky Rubio could add speed and strength to his elite court vision and strong defensive skills? It wouldn’t make him a better shooter, but it certainly would enable him to utilize his strong suits even further.
What about those players on the roster bubble who are better athletes than talents (Know the difference between the two)? If it means playing in the D-League for $20,000 per year or taking something that enables you to provide for your family well-above the poverty line, would you be able to fault them? See, the line isn’t always drawn clearly in the sand. And for those players who are able to achieve that edge, you need to find a way to stay at that level while also trying to skirt the system.
If anything, the Armstrong news made me wonder about the NBA. The only bust they’ve had that I can think of is the Rashard Lewis one a few years ago, but is it plausible that he was the only one ever even though many players train together? It’s possible, sure, but I’m not sure of the possibility. Does the Association just not check as thoroughly and frequently, making it easier to beat the system than other sports? It seems a little arrogant, perhaps, to think that the entire NBA is above it all when they have just as many competitive and proud players as any sport.
Consider the platelet therapy that Kobe Bryant and Brandon Roy had that allowed their careers to continue. Isn’t the idea about a hop, skip, and a jump a way from blood doping? Sure it’s technically a “surgery”, but it feels like we’re in the competitive (not legal) grey area between that and blood doping. Is there really a vast difference between platelet therapy and an athlete training at a higher altitude to increase his white blood cells, save that blood, and inject his body with that white blood cell rich blood at a lower altitude? What’s to say in 5 years that players take to less-legal mediums of getting that competitive edge? Nothing.
I suppose my point is that someday someone is going to slip up and not to be surprised when it happens, because every time we’ve held someone to that standard of purity, we’ve been let down. And that’s what we get when we make human beings our heroes. For every heroic moment, there will be that one moment that changes everything that we’ve thought about them, and then we remember, we don’t really know these people.