Lance, Barry, & America’s Mixed-Up Sports Culture

January 15th, 2013

I grew up in Plano, Texas, a suburb just north of Dallas.  Lance Armstrong did, too.  While I generally enjoyed a positive experience in Plano, Armstrong hated the place.  In his autobiography, he described Plano as “soul-deadening.”

This probably explains why people in Plano don’t talk about Armstrong that much even though he was born and raised there.  When they do mention him, even harkening back to his cycling glory years, it’s rarely in flattering terms.

I now live in Austin, Texas.  This is Armstrong’s adopted hometown, and people in Austin revere Armstrong in a way reserved mainly for popes and presidents.  They love him here and don’t tolerate any negative comments about their hero. I’ve noticed that few people here will ever dare say a negative word about him because when they do they’re cut down pretty quickly.

With Armstrong’s alleged admission to Oprah Winfrey that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his seven Tour de France campaigns, some of those feelings may be changing. Today, I’ve talked to quite a few people here whose one time unmitigated admiration for him is now a blur of, at the least, very mixed feelings.

Since I haven’t seen the interview yet, I don’t feel qualified to provide a strong opinion one way or the other about Lance Armstrong.  As the mother of two sons who spend lots of time watching sports and following their heroes on ESPN, however, I do have a few general opinions to share.

From what I’ve heard from people both in Plano and Austin, Lance Armstrong is a truly gifted and amazing athlete without drugs.  His rise up the ladder to sports stardom began at a very young age and was recognized profoundly when he was a high school student at Plano East Senior High School. As a teenager, he mesmerized people with his amazing natural athletic ability.

As we watched the news together this morning about Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah, I asked my youngest son if he could think of anyone else who was an amazing athlete even before he began using performance enhancing drugs.  He instantly said “Barry Bonds” who last week was passed over for admission to the Baseball Hall of Fame along with Roger Clemons and Sammy Sosa for alleged similar transgressions. Bonds could have easily made it into the Hall of Fame without the drugs.  Now, he likely will never make it to Cooperstown because of the allegations that he used them.

The fact that an eleven-year-old could instantly answer my question says a lot about the impact these athletes have on our kids.  My sons and their friends watch ESPN and play sports related video games daily.  This generation knows far more about these sports figures than my generation ever did about our own heroes.

As parents, we send our children very conflicting messages when it comes to sports.  On the one hand, we tell them that cheating is unacceptable and that steroid use is not only cheating but dangerous.  We say that winning isn’t everything and give trophies for every kid just to show up.  Then at other times we scream and holler at coaches and umpires in front of our kids and in doing so send a clear message that winning is in fact extremely important to us, even to the extent of making enormous embarrassing fools out of ourselves.

Some parents and coaches even go so far as to cheat themselves to win.  Because of this, as the Team Mom for my son’s baseball team, I’m required to carry and present a folder containing all the boys’ birth certificates for all the tournaments we enter in order to prove each child’s age.  Evidently, over the years, some coaches and parents tried to pass off 12-year-olds as 9-year-olds to win 9 and Under level tournaments.  I’ve often wondered what meaning these old trophies hold years later for the kids who “won” them in this manner.

What message then are we sending our kids?  Should we really be surprised when certain athletes turn to cheating in order to win?  If so, what can we do to break this cycle because clearly it’s wrong.

I know not everyone agrees with me about this.

For example, a friend of mine shared the opinion that Lance Armstrong is being treated unfairly in all of this because everyone cheats in cycling.  Personally, I think if that’s the case, they should clean out the whole lot of them and start over then.  I can’t abide cheating because it’s not only wrong but there is potentially no end to it.  Today, professional athletes are using performance-enhancing drugs.  Next, they’ll be implanting computer chips in their bodies.  Whoever has the best software designer “wins.” If we come to that, then we diminish sports for what it is supposed to represent— tremendous human achievement unaided by hidden crutches designed to give us an edge.

Lance Armstrong has done some very good things in his life.  Without a doubt, his Livestrong charity and the hope and inspiration he offered cancer patients with his own courageous story is quite commendable. (One writer noted, however, that Al Capone generously supported orphans in his community. In other words, just because you’re good doesn’t mean you can’t also be bad.)

The fact that Lance Armstrong represents one thing to the people of Plano and something quite different to Austin citizens seems to sum up his story so far.  I hope for his sake and for all the kids who once looked up to him and may aspire to their own sports greatness, all his efforts from today forward will be only for the good.