It shouldn’t be a surprise that I have an opinion on cheating. It has affected me both personally and professionally on more than one occasion, and I’ve blogged about it in the past. And what you’re about to read is essentially the conversation that plays in my head every time a new doping scandal emerges. I’m not saying that my thought process is right or wrong or perfect or otherwise. I’m just sharing it because it might impart a less than obvious perspective. And, it doesn’t mean that my thoughts are completely objective either, but I do try to be fair…and I can only speak for myself. So here goes….
If I can be honest, I know that there are some fans out there who don’t care how us athletes do what we do when we do it. They just want to be there to see it when it happens. It’s like wrestling. Folks know it ‘s fake – scripted from beginning to end in terms of the outcome – but they still pay good money to watch it. And they enjoy it. The difference between wrestling and sports like track and field? Our fans don’t know what’s real from what’s fake. The question is, does it really matter to the majority? I’d hope so. Because that is what sustained my career. Knowing that there were folks out there who believed in the sport – true fans and supporters – who not only appreciated the performance and entertainment value of a meet, but also appreciated the blood, sweat and tears behind each race. That honest to God effort that I, and other athletes like me, put toward each competition; each opportunity to come back from a setback; and, every chance to beat a competitor at the finish.
But this is so much bigger than me and track and field. And I can’t get past the questions that pop into my mind each time there is a new name that surfaces in headlines. Because the athlete in me is hard pressed to understand how everything transpires. Now I’m no idiot – an idealist, perhaps – but it baffles me how some folks who cheat the system (in sport and otherwise) get amnesty and concessions for cooperation. And I say that, knowing that we are a society of second chances. No one can force a grown man or woman to do anything. Sure, you can be persuaded, pressured, influenced…but the decision to do or not do that thing that you KNOW you shouldn’t – it’s all yours. I guess the point that I’m getting at is intent.
So understanding athlete intent – and the premise that getting tough on doping means tackling those who aide and abet cheaters – means that at the most basic level, you could theoretically, knowingly do what is wrong, get caught, cooperate and walk away with a slap on the wrist. That’s the watered down version, but are we now at the place where we laud and applaud those who tap dance around rules and procedures because they cooperate? Is it really necessary to sacrifice true consequence for the sake of cooperation? Shouldn’t it be expected? Or is the old adage that says rules are meant to be broken is really true? Have we diminished the value, significance and validity of those rules, so much so, that they’re merely a guide for interpretation? If the rule is the rule and code is code, why not make it all stick and stay? Sure – take down the helpers and their network of friends…just take the cheaters with them. Otherwise, where’s the sting for the cheater? It all feels like a big awkward web of contradictions.
And then, bringing it back to sports, there’s the whole experience thing again. The Mark McGwire, A-Rod and Sammy Sosa moments of our generation still happened – and the memory of those moments are still a part of the American sports experience – they just happened under false pretenses. Does that matter? If you knew that moment was fake when it happened, would it be any less memorable? Would you love that sport, or athlete or team any less? I don’t know. Maybe.
To further complicate things, the realist in me knows that there is a springboard of opportunities that lie in the shadows of a cheater’s backstory. Look at Lance Armstrong. Documentaries, book deals, a movie…even an interview with Oprah. And for what? For admitting he cheated fans, teammates and family? It’s like taking cheater’s high to another level – but this time, perhaps, with a lesson learned. Who’s to say the same thing won’t happen with the latest doping scandal to hit home in track and field? Time will tell, but what’s more confusing about that is the appetite that exists for the backstory. I’ll be among the first to admit that I was tied to my TV when the 9.79* episode of 30 for 30 aired on ESPN. I wanted to know how it went down – the details – because for me, it validated that the Ben Johnson thing, it really happened. The flipside of all of it is that some lessons are best learned through experience. Sure, some folks cheat, get caught and turn things around for the good – never cheating again. But again, like wrestling – how does the fan discern what’s real from what’s fake? The authentic and sincere lesson learned? That truly heartfelt apology? The fan can’t. No one can. And does every new doping revelation chip away at the trust that fans have in athletes and sport? Maybe. But really, the sincerity of a cheater’s apology – is born and bred in his or her heart. And that is a conversation between that person and God. You and me? We’re not allowed.
Ultimately, and most importantly, the Christian in me believes that you have to have a personal conviction and conscience to make the right choices – but at the end of the day, we all fall short. None of us are perfect. It isn’t my place to vilify anyone for the choices they make, particularly when those choices impact others. And that’s something that goes way beyond sport. What’s tough is separating – and many times suppressing – the emotional response that those choices conjure up. Those feeling are real and very present. It is called human nature. But it is easy to get all wrapped up in how justified we are for feeling the way we feel. And then, hang our “rightness” over the head of the one who has done wrong. Is that right?
This Sunday, my Pastor taught about forgiveness – and the message couldn’t have come at a better time – for a variety of reasons – but mainly because he said that forgiveness is not an emotion – it is a choice. We have to choose to forgive. That doesn’t mean we forget, but in order to get past those feelings – the anger, frustration and betrayal – and to a place of peace, you and I, we have to let it go.