There are two titles many athletes and coaches eventually add to their professional resume — cheater and, subsequently, liar.
The temptation to cheat in sports, and then lie about it, while making millions upon millions of dollars as a professional or enjoying collegiate or even high school recognition, is far too great to reasonably hold one individual accountable as a “Worst of the Worst” offender.
Lance Armstrong is in the target finder right now just like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Shawn Merriman have been in the past. He’s become another casualty of an ultra-competitive value system that’s induced many other weak-spirited people to negate all the good they’ve done or could have done.
The major difference, and what makes Armstrong’s admission of taking performance enhancing drugs after years of denial so terrible, is that he used his ill-gotten gain to do some positive work — like a cyclist/philanthropist Robin Hood who steals from his competitors and gives to cancer research.
I honestly don’t believe he is the controlling, pressuring monster some of his former teammates have accused him of being. The picture that has been painted of him is that of a man who is brooding and nefarious with rodent-like methods of dealing with people. He may have let the spirit of competition, whose pendulum swings between both good and bad, get the better of him. I don’t he’s guilty of more than that.
The lesson, which young athletes in particular should learn early, is to take the straight and narrow way, difficult though it may be, and own your mistakes.
The only way to make a bad situation worse is to lie about it, and then get caught in that lie. We all learned that lesson as children — the first time most people were caught in a lie, they also caught a whipping.
It should be noted that part of the responsibility for cases like Armstrong’s falls on a public that supports and venerates professional athletes to an obscene level.
I imagine that at some point, after being told he was the greatest cyclist in the history of the sport, Armstrong actually started to believe it.
And when you believe you’re the greatest, you’re going to do what it takes to stay that way.
But what made Armstrong great in the eyes of millions of people was his ability to ride a bicycle faster and longer than other people. That’s it. His talents were impressive, without a doubt, but they don’t merit putting someone on a pedestal so high that they’ll compromise our society’s definition of basic morality to stay there.
I’ve had, and still have, heroes from the world of sports and I probably always will. But what I appreciate most in the people I look up to, regardless of their profession, is integrity and honesty and an open devotion to the truth.
Those are the traits we should seek out first in the lives of the people we want to extol. Everything else is secondary.
Michael Gebelein is sports editor of the Lincoln Times-News.