On Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, and My Raging Hypocrisy

Mario Tama

I think Bonds and Clemens should be in the Hall of Fame and don't harbor much ill will toward them for their use of performance enhancing drugs. On the other hand, I am furious with Lance Armstrong and want him to be remembered as the worst of the worst. Am I a raging hypocrite?

In the midst of all of our hand-wringing over Delmon Young's happy cakes and Ruben Amaro's infatuation with acquiring negative fWAR players, I've got a bigger fish to fry - my own blatant hypocrisy.

Let me explain. If you read what I wrote earlier this month about baseball writers being sanctimonious blowhards, you know how I feel about players such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens being kept out of the Hall of Fame. I was pretty harsh in that piece, arguing that the writers who voted against known steroid users (as well as against those who played in the same era as them) had an overinflated sense of their jobs (they are not our nation's moralizers-in-chief; they are baseball writers) and of the institutions they are a part of (the Hall of Fame is not some sanctified monument; it's just a building in Cooperstown that collects the best performers in a sport).

Along with my calling out baseball writers, I was quite clear that I don't harbor much animosity toward Bonds, Clemens, and their ilk. I watch baseball for entertainment, and for decades they entertained me in ways that most other players did not. For that, I think they should be in the Hall of Fame, along with other players who have excelled in their eras.

I wrote that piece on January 10, and then something funny happened just a few days later: Lance Armstrong confessed to using all sorts of performance enhancing substances throughout his career as a cyclist. And I became a raging hypocrite.

Unlike my complete lack of concern for Bonds' and Clemens' use of whatever they used, I am livid about Armstrong. I want him banned from the sport for life. I want his name forever remembered as the worst of sports cheaters. I want all his money to go to cancer victims as well as those who he trampled on throughout his career and for him to be left penniless. I want him to go on national prime-time network TV and apologize to Betsy Andreu in the most self-flagellating way possible.

In other words, even though everything I wrote in the third paragraph of this story about "Bonds, Clemens, and their ilk" applies to Armstrong, I feel precisely the opposite about him as I do about Bonds and Clemens.

Is there any reasonable explanation for this? Can I claim any shred of consistency in how I feel? Or am I exactly what I accused the baseball writers of being - a sanctimonious blowhard of my own? I truly don't know the answer to these questions, so in an effort to answer them, here are a few thoughts on how there might be differences:

The Sport: Are the sports so different that there is a reason to blame cheaters in one and not in the other? In ways that most non-cyclists don't appreciate, cycling is a team sport, but it still is mostly an individual sport. The winners are individuals. Baseball, however, is much more a team sport. Teams win championships, not individuals. But, the records we know Bonds and Clemens for are their individual performances. That's not much different than Armstrong's records.

Their Crimes: What Bonds and Clemens did to enhance their performance was not clearly prohibited by Major League Baseball. In fact, in many ways, MLB was complicit in their crimes. What Armstrong did was flatly prohibited by cycling, and he did everything he could to evade detection. But there's no doubt that Bonds and Clemens knew they were doing something wrong, and they worked to evade detection as well. All of them were cheating among a culture of their sport filled with other cheaters. I just don't see much difference here either.

Their History: Bonds and Clemens dominated their sport from their first days playing, when we have less evidence that they were using anything. Armstrong was a good cyclist early on, but nothing too special until after his cancer fight. In fact, it appears he used performance enhancers both before and after his illness. Thus, there's less of a sense that he was a natural elite talent who got even better with performance enhancers as opposed to a very determined and effective cheater throughout his career. I guess there's a difference there, but I don't feel that it accounts for how I feel. In fact, it could cut the other way -- that Bonds and Clemens were stupid for taking actions that weren't necessary given their natural talent, and that Armstrong was just trying to catch up to others who may or may not have also been doping.

Suspicion: Suspicion has swirled around all three for most of their careers. In fact, it was pretty much accepted for most of Bonds' career after the first few years that something funny was going on. Clemens may have escaped the same level of questioning early on, but by the end of his (never-ending) career, his performance was in doubt. With Armstrong, ever since his first Tour win, lots of people asked about whether he took anything to enhance his performance, so much so that he filmed this now-absurdly-ironic-and-sad commercial in response. But as the sport became dirtier and dirtier and more and more of Armstrong's associates admitted to doping, the suspicion around Armstrong became more believable. Thus, when he refused to dispute formal charges against him last summer and then admitted to everything two weeks ago, it really didn't come as much of a surprise. In other words, for none of these athletes was there a sudden shock revelation.

Their Story: Bonds and Clemens have always been amazing baseball players . . . who had nothing else attractive about them. In fact, from everything I've ever known about the two of them, there's not much redeeming about them off the field. Armstrong, on the other hand, traded not only on his cycling performance but also on his story. He was the cancer survivor who became the elite athlete unlike anyone who has ever played his sport. But there was more: based on this story, he raised almost half a billion dollars for sick children and other cancer victims. His story was like no other. Yet now we know that it's complete bullshit. Yes, he beat cancer and raised the money, and you can't deny that, but the rest was a lie. Moreover, all the times I excused Armstrong for his being a complete asshole (and there were many) because a) he was such an amazing cyclist and b) he overcame so much, I was making excuses for someone who deserved no one's support. In other words, I feel completely duped, as I bought his lie hook, line, and sinker. I have no similar feelings with Bonds, Clemens, or any baseball player of the steroid era.

My Connection: I am an avid baseball fan, and I played through high school. But I have long been and remain a diehard road cyclist. I have never biked competitively, but I have trained with those who do and have ridden big-time non-competitive events. I now bike much less than I did in the past, but I still bike regularly for recreation, and it is my chief form of transportation to and from work. I know from my long experience in the sport what is required to excel, which made me that much more in awe of Armstrong and what he accomplished. I followed his wins with my cycling buddies while we were stretching ourselves as much as we could but feeling humbled by the knowledge of what Armstrong was doing. In other words, not only was I 100% duped by his story, but I was also personally in awe of what he had done, because I knew from my own experience it was so spectacular. I just don't have the same connection to actually playing baseball.

So maybe these last two things explain it? The Armstrong story along with my particular connection to the sport of cycling. Do they adequately explain why I feel so differently? Am I just angry that I was thoroughly duped about a sport I am personally involved in?

But there's one more thing to factor in:

Cancer: He raised almost half a billion dollars to fight cancer. Sure, some of that money would have gone to other cancer charities, but I bet a lot of it was newly donated money for the cause. With a disease so evil and pernicious, shouldn't we have a "by any means necessary" attitude? In other words, so what if I feel a little duped. Unlike Betsy Andreu, some of Armstrong's teammates, and a few others he took down along the way, I didn't suffer personally from his actions. In fact, I and millions of others were entertained by them for almost a decade and so inspired by them that we donated money, lots of money, gobs of money, to fight a killer. Lots of people were entertained, a handful were hurt, and half a billion dollars were raised to fight cancer. Isn't that something very few professional athletes can say and an equation with an obvious moral balance?

In which case, shouldn't the discussion be about why, in the grand scheme of things, do we care one iota what Armstrong put in his blood, and why aren't we just continuing to talk about what a great man he is for doing everything he could to help the world?

Which would ultimately mean that Armstrong, Bonds, and Clemens are not at all cut from the same cloth and that, at the very least, I should feel the same about all three. But I don't. So am I really just a raging hypocrite?

I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

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