Great athletes are an inspiration, and it’s part of the human experience to idolize them. Average Joes outnumber the professional athletes million(s) to one. Considering this fact, it’s only natural that we would look up to someone who can do things that we could never do.
I was a 3-season athlete in high school, and there were plenty of athletes whom I looked up to. However, there was always one who inspired me more than the rest. Until recently, that athlete was Lance Armstrong.
Ever since my junior year of high school, when my father won his battle against prostate cancer and I started getting serious about high school sports, I’ve held Lance in the highest regard for his strength and ability to overcome any obstacle. But since he was stripped of his seven consecutive Tour De France championship titles, my feelings toward Armstrong and other athletes accused or found guilty of doping have become mixed.
The accusations against Armstrong seem to hold more weight than accusations against other athletes in the sporting community. In June of this year, he was charged with doping and trafficking of drugs by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), based on his blood samples from 2009 and 2010. Armstrong overcame such animosity in his personal life to achieve astounding success, and his accomplishments are magnified because of the cancer he beat prior to his seven consecutive championship wins. Since then he has started the Lance Armstrong Foundation (LAF), a non-profit organization that provides support for people who have been affected by cancer. In light of the controversy facing Armstrong, it’s a blessing that his cycling career doesn’t directly affect the LAF. Equally important as how it affects his career is how it affects his followers. Armstrong has the unique dual responsibility of being an athletic icon and a patron of charity. As such, he affects a wider audience of people.
Reactions to his scandal are varied, to say the least. I think that there’s a good chance he did dope, but no hard evidence exists to convince me absolutely that he did. To many others the accusation and refusal from Armstrong to fight against it are proof enough, prompting many to swiftly remove their LAF bracelets. The lifetime ban from the sport of cycling given to him by the USADA is a severe blow to all things Armstrong and a message to any would-be dopers who might follow.
But when it’s boiled down, the big picture illustrates that this is the latest in a series of doping allegations and testimonies years in the making, stretching across almost all of the most popular professional sports. While Lance is certainly the most high profile, there have been other significant dopers in far more popular sports. I distinctly remember accusations against Roger Clemens, considered one of the greatest baseball pitchers of all time, that took him to court. His records may still stand, but with a record like Clemens’, the accusation is all it took for his reputation to suffer irreparable damage.
Another factor that distorts the image of athletes is how trustworthy the athlete in question is considered to be. Take two modern athletes, Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing of the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans. Both played football at the University of Southern California, both were picked in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft and both have been accused of using banned performance-enhancing substances. Cushing was actually caught doping and suffered a four-game suspension in the 2010 season, whereas Matthews has been accused but never proven guilty. Matthews’ steadfastly denies ever using them, and, frankly, I believe him. He is the third generation in an NFL family, and his uncle Bruce Matthews is considered one of the best offensive linemen in the history of the NFL. With a legacy like that, and no evidence to support otherwise, I can believe that Matthews stays away from steroids.
The problem lies with the actual personalities of the players, and how little we actually know about them. We don’t actually know how trustworthy the players are, or what their reputation is among other players. The only people who really know the truth are the ones closest to him. So for now we just have to take his word for it, a phrase that can be applied to many other athletes who deny accusations of doping.
Honestly, I can understand the allure of doping for professional athletics. Substances like steroids are relatively easy to take and can put an athlete ahead of the competition. An injection here and there and voila, the player is better than they were-minimal effort, maximum gain. When an athlete plays better, they get more attention from the sports media, better contracts, better sponsorships and more money. While not commendable, it’s understandable that athletes would dope.
It seems that only the most flawless athletes are the ones that are considered iconic and idol-worthy, a fact elevated by how little we care about the rest of the athletes. It seems that there are fewer and fewer role model athletes playing today, a breed of sports hero which is quickly fading out due to things like steroids, infidelity, and trouble with the law. Recent role models that come to mind include Ray Allen, Steve Nash, and (as much as it pains me to say this as a Red Sox fan) Derek Jeter. Allen has sheer determination and work ethic, Steve Nash is an all-around good person and excellent teammate, and Derek Jeter has been a solid player and humanitarian for years. When we pick an athlete to idolize we become attached to them in one way or another, and when that athlete has a fall from grace, the consequences are amplified on a personal level.
We put so much pressure on them, whether it’s intentional or not, and yet we’re shocked when they aren’t perfect. An article by Newsweek columnist Raina Kelley describes “Why we should stop worshipping athletes – unless they’re on the field,” and part of me agrees with her. It would just be easier to cut the cord and admire them for what they accomplish in the sporting world. More of me wants to believe that there are still great athletes with integrity and a sense of responsibility that will keep them away from doping and other nefarious activities. Athletes will probably never stop doping, and Lance will never stop getting on a bike even if it’s not in competition. But I’m not so sure how long I’ll keep wearing my Livestrong bracelet.