29 January 2013

Lance Armstrong: making the level playing field fair, and not just level

Additional source added to reference list June 2013 (see Law professor guilty of boosting grades in exchange for sex, May 28, 2013.

Cheating through doping, denying, lying, and reacting harshly to allegations with accusations of his own are what have led cyclist Lance Armstrong to fall from grace. Underlying all these is the idea of the ‘level playing field’ and what that means to cyclists, their team associates and supporters, the media, and the general public.

Lance claimed that he started doping in the mid 90s because other Tour cyclists were doing it. As he saw it, it was a question of either dope or quit. Amy Davidson writes in the New Yorker that, during his interviews with Oprah Winfrey in January, 2013, Lance had said he didn’t feel like a cheat and “hadn’t felt any sense of wrongdoing when he doped” (Lance Armstrong’s Flawed Confession, Jan 18, 2013). Rather than view doping as gaining an advantage over others, he viewed it as a level playing field.

In her blog, Davidson questions why Lance would use the dictionary definition of ‘cheat’ at all, “rather than looking inward.” The main problem seemed to be with Lance’s limited use of dictionary definitions, that he didn’t see that there were other meanings of ‘cheat,’ besides ‘gaining advantage over others,’ such as “to violate rules dishonestly” or even “to influence or lead by deceit, trick, or artifice” (see ‘cheat,’ Miriam Webster online Dictionary),” both of which imply intent, as it happens, and not an occurrence that happened by chance. But using inward signs of guilt, as Davidson suggests, might have led to an internalization of accusations by people acting from only their own understanding of the situation, one that denies the complexity of aiming for something higher than oneself, or anything else I might not have thought of. Her implied suggestion, by this comment, that Lance lacked a conscience, was unnecessary, in my view. In this case, it might have been better if Lance had used more than one dictionary, read them more carefully, and referred to them more often during his rise to the top.

A decidedly sympathetic view – and one knowledgeable of what Lance might have gone through in making the decision whether or not to dope – comes from Amby Burfoot. Writing for the magazine Runner’s World, for which he is also Editor-at-Large, Ambrose explains the process of deciding whether to dope. Following are selected excerpts from his article comparing running and cycling in terms of doping:

“The point is you have two options: quit, or join. If you’re really stubborn and masochistic, I suppose you could also keep running 120 miles/week, and keep getting crushed at the races. But you can’t think you’re going to win. Not realistically. . . This is the situation Lance Armstrong faced in the late 1990s. He felt he was as good as the rest, he knew Americans could win the Tour (as Greg LeMond had done a decade earlier), yet he also knew he couldn’t win without doping, because that’s what the Tour leaders were doing. I’m no cycling expert, but it seems clear everyone in the sport knew that the top athletes and teams were doping . . . So Armstrong, in my view, had few options: quit, settle for clean mediocrity, or dope. I understand why he doped, and don’t blame him for that . . . doping is easy to rationalize. It simply amounts to “leveling the playing field” (Of Lance Armstrong and “Leveling The Playing Field,” Jan 22, 2013).

Another view on Lance and his behaviour comes from Andrew Coyne, writing for the National Post:

“let us drop the pretense that we’re all so scandalized by Armstrong because he lied. Granted, he lied about cycling, rather than mere financial dealings or affairs of state. But the reason he is in such obloquy, and Clinton and Mulroney are not, is not because his lies were worse, but because he’s not as good at it: because he is not as charming — shall we say manipulative? — as they. Frankly, when it comes to conning the public, he is not in their league” (Lance Armstrong disgraced only because he’s not as charming as other liars, Jan 18, 2013). This makes sense. Charisma – charm – whatever you call it – makes all the difference in the world.

Coyne goes on to say that Lance has been described as a sociopath and as a psychopath (see ‘The real Lance Armstrong emerged in Oprah Winfrey interview,’ Jan 18, 2013), and more – without morals, arrogant, smug, and evasive. The list goes on, although I would mention here that psychologizing in this manner – using such terms – is probably not the best way to approach this.

Taking an ethical stance on Lance Armstrong’s numerous misdeeds and recent demonstration of repentance, Western University Philosophy professor Samantha Brennan asks, if doping had been Lance’s only fault, would we see the moral implications as not so serious? She acknowledges that doping was rampant at that time and in his field, but finds the lies, rule-breaking, and other wrongdoings serious in themselves, regardless of the doping problem. She describes his wrongdoings, including “leading a team where doping appears to have been the norm, covering up the doping, intimidating and threatening those who would expose him, all the while lying about his drug taking to the public, and appearing in commercials and TV interviews claiming to be clean” (Spin cycle - Armstrong, doping and the lies he told, Jan 24, 2013). At the same time she offers an explanation for these – a phenomenon one might also refer to as the snowball effect. It just kept getting bigger and more out of his control.

Brennan compares the problem of doping to plagiarism, a comparison I see as inadequate and not as complex as the wider situation of Lance’s doping and its consequences. I would suggest that comparing doping with "sex for grades," another university problem, offers a more suitable complexity.

Plagiarism is an individual activity and choice, while doping in some ways is more like engaging in the giving and taking of sex for grades. More people would be needed to be involved in "sex for grades" activities than in plagiarizing, as keeping it hidden from the authorities and outside the realm of perceived illicit activity would require cooperation from others, just as doping would require the cooperation of others involved in the scheme.

‘Sex for grades’ is similar to doping in competition for these reasons – it concerns both the body and mind; it is about competing; it is one of those things that some people might see as a leveling the playing field though at the least it is about gaining advantage; it’s a choice – it’s your body; there can be legal consequences but only if you get caught; it takes friends and colleagues to ensure that you get away with it; damaged reputations and careers of those who speak out against the practice are considered collateral damage; even people who don’t agree that it’s an ethical issue but simply a legal one won’t speak out against you because you’re a nice guy or you fought cancer and beat it or have a family or have done much for the community or the country; it’s a cultural matter - people can live with it while being in denial of it.

Brennan provides the readers with three “quick” conclusions: “It’s a just punishment that Lance Armstrong be stripped of all of his Tour de France titles and never be allowed to take part in bike racing again. The questions are more complicated, if he’d only been guilty of using performance enhancing drugs in a context in which it certainly appears rule breaking was rampant. And it’s time to level the playing field at all levels of cycling.”

Starting with the second conclusion, in which Brennan appears to be taking Lance’s side, the aim is to look at only the doping aspect of all that Lance did. Brennan suggests that if the only problem was Lance’s doping, and not all the other things that went along with it – lying, bullying, leading others to doping, and ruining lives and careers of others in order to protect himself - then there would have to be more thought taken as to how to treat him. See also, ‘He is what he is: a complete fraud,’ Jan 16, 2013, by Morris Dalla Costa, for more on Lance’s behaviour.

It’s not quite the same as saying doping is acceptable under some circumstances, but if everyone else is doing it and it’s a matter of either dope or quit, then what is a person supposed to do if faced with that choice? Likewise, regarding the issue of sex for grades or other academic advantage. Is there only a problem when someone gets hurt (not counting the competitors who lost out because they didn’t dope or in the other situation, didn’t provide sexual favours)? If sex is by mutual consent, and not for advantage, does that make any problems of its legitimacy disappear (meaning, based on something real rather than pretense)? Is it only sex explicitly for grades or career advancement that is problematic? And if doping had been all that Lance did, for the purpose of performing his best at his chosen sport, should that be punished as severely as some suggest, by loss of cycling career, endorsements, and side interests.

In her last conclusion, Brennan says, “And it’s time to level the playing field at all levels of cycling.” In this way, she is bringing the phrase “leveling the playing field’ up to date and applying it to the way competititve sports should be – free of cheating, bullying, lying, and ruined careers for those who don’t participate or who speak up about it. This isn’t the kind of level playing field that Lance Armstrong claims he got involved with – one based on doping, but it is what the aim should be in competetitive cycling. As long as there are ways for individuals to enhance the capacity of their bodies in order to gain advantage, enforcing regulations will be difficult. Changing attitudes is another way through this.

That brings us back to Brennan’s first conclusion, that it’s a just decision to strip Lance of his titles and never allow him to race again. It sounds like a punishment for all his threats and lies and not only for doping. But would that punishment be fair for other kinds of cheating combined with lying, bullying, leading others to the same behaviour, and ruining lives and careers of others in order to protect themselves? If we consider the circumstances of men and women who cheat by exchanging sex for grades, or sex for other academic advantage, and do harm to others in so doing, what should their penalty be? I wonder, would Brennan think that men and women who gain advantage from participating in “sex for grades” while doing harm to others should be stripped of their titles and never be allowed to work in academia again? And is it right that former colleagues and acquaintances simply walk away from Lance, leaving him to make his own way in the world again?

Is what is most important the fact that there are explicit rules against doping? And if there are no such regulations against exchanging sex for academic advantage, does that mean the practice is acceptable, or would it then make it strictly an ethical issue and not a legal or administrative one? Two individuals who have made a point of discussing professor-student relationships publically are Sociologist Barry Dank and author/speaker Hugo Schwyzer, who hold opposing perspectives, for the most part (see Overselling agency: a reply to Barry Dank on teacher-student sex, Sept 30, 2010).

It’s easy to say to go ahead and punish someone to the full extent, especially if they are a stranger to you and your community, but I don’t believe that people’s anger and disappointment in a situation such as Lance’s should take priority. It’s normal to feel that way when you have been betrayed. Nor do I necessarily think that all the trophies or prizes the person has won should be the deciding factor on his future. I find Brennan’s first conclusion harsh, even though making it the first one of three leaves room for disputing it.

Comparing Lance’s situation with similar situations involving cheating and betrayal that have resulted in harassment and traumatic life change for the victims, and disillusionment in general, as well as seeing how those situations were resolved, might change the way people view them. Remember what Andrew Coyne said (Lance Armstrong disgraced only because he’s not as charming as other liars, Jan 18, 2013). I agree that’s part of it, but the story isn’t over yet. Lance was stripped of his titles and banned from cycling (Lance Armstrong stripped of all seven Tour de France titles, banned from cycling for life after doping report, Oct 22, 2012), has lost his endorsements and stepped down from his position as chairman of Livestrong, his charity for cancer.

A recent case involving sex for grades at university is now in the courts in Singapore (‘Sex-for-grades trial: Prof says he gave Darinne Ko $2,500 cheque for gifts, dinner’, Jan 15, 2013). If an exchange involving sex occurred at all in this case, it may be the case that in other situations where sex is used for advantage or accessed through offering advantage (eg at universities or places of work), it may not be being done overtly or in ways that can be tracked or seen to be happening. And if it part of a genuine relationship then seeing the exchange as trickery might not be accurate. Sometimes it is the outcome that tells the real story – not whether they have a career or not, but that if they do, how well they are able to do it.

Other articles can be accessed through links in blog entries I have written on this subject. I shall mention here two on student-prof relationships, one from the Globe and Mail, the other a UK publication: On-campus sex ban: Hands off the student body, Prof, Apr 08, 2010; Sex for grades in Africa's academy, Jan 21, 2010. For more links to articles on this practice within the university and about student-professor relationships in general, from places worldwide including Africa, USA, Canada, and the UK, see Sex for grades in universities, on Sue’s Views on the News.

Like doping, the culture of "sex for grades" has probably changed a great deal over the years, though both attempt to maintain the illusion that agreement to them, or similar activities, involves no coercion. Lance may have been a leader in his field, but there are likely many others whose opportunity to excel ended at the entrance to the doping room. Did others’ opportunities for an academic career end at the door of the prof’s office?

Cyclist Bradley Wiggins explains how Lance’s alleged indiscretions on tour in 2009 affected him and his relationship with his son on hearing about his confession about previous years of doping to Oprah (Bradley Wiggins accuses Lance Armstrong of cheating: ‘You lying bastard,’ Jan 25, 2013). Having missed out on a place on the podium in the 2009 Tour de France, while Lance Armstrong placed third, current Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins now feels prouder than ever of what he has accomplished. He established himself as one of the finest riders, also finally receiving credit for coming third in the 2009 race. This is just one story of many that we will probably not hear about.

Lance Armstrong’s concept of “the level playing field” is a somewhat different understanding of it than how people might think of it today when the hope is that cycling can be turned around to become a dope-free sport – a fair playing field. Perhaps stronger enforcement and testing measures are changing the culture of doping, making it less likely to be kept secret and increasingly a less acceptable practice. But heaping blame mainly on one person, causing him to lose so much that he has worked for, can hardly be helpful, except to provide an outlet for frustration, a real life situation for people to direct their hostility, as though it could never happen to them or someone they love.

Bradley Wiggins accuses Lance Armstrong of cheating: ‘You lying bastard’
Associated Press
National Post – Sports
Jan 25, 2013

Miriam Webster online Dictionary
retrieved Jan 27, 2013.

He is what he is: a complete fraud
By Morris Dalla Costa
The London Free Press
Jan 16, 2013

Lance Armstrong disgraced only because he’s not as charming as other liars
By Andrew Coyne
National Post – Full comment
Jan 18, 2013

Lance Armstrong’s Flawed Confession
By Amy Davidson
New Yorker - blogs
Jan 18, 2013

Lance Armstrong stripped of all seven Tour de France titles, banned from cycling for life after doping report
By Grahan Dunbar, Associated Press
National Post - Sports
Oct 22, 2012

Law professor guilty of boosting grades in exchange for sex
By: Bloomberg
The Star
May 28, 2013
[added June, 2013]

Of Lance Armstrong And “Leveling The Playing Field”
By Amby (Ambrose) Burfoot
Runner's World - Peak Performance
Jan 22, 2013

On-campus sex ban: Hands off the student body, Prof
By Dakshana Bascaramurty
Globe and Mail
Apr 08, 2010, updated Aug 23, 2012

Overselling agency: a reply to Barry Dank on teacher-student sex
By Hugo Schwyzer
Sept 30, 2010

The real Lance Armstrong emerged in Oprah Winfrey interview
By Bruce Arthur
National Post
Jan 18, 2013

Sex for grades in Africa's academy
By John Morgan
Times Higher Education (THE)
Jan 21, 2010

Sex for grades in universities
By Sue McPherson
Sue’s Views on the News
Jan 22, 2012

Sex-for-grades trial: Prof says he gave Darinne Ko $2,500 cheque for gifts, dinner
By Bryna Singh
The Straits Times
Jan 15, 2013

Spin cycle - Armstrong, doping and the lies he told
By Samantha Brennan
Western News
Jan 24, 2013