January 27, 2013

A path too easy

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

— On first blush, the Lance Armstrong self destruction has little to do with us. On second thought, it says a lot about our society.

We all know the surface story. Spreading testicular cancer threatened to end the life and career of a good but not great bicycle racer in the mid 1990s. He survived and, in the process, lost so much weight it changes his cycling form. He went on to win seven consecutive Tour de France bicycle races, considered the most challenging in the world. In doing so, he inspired millions of people, and raised almost half a billion dollars to help others survive cancer.

And he did most of this while taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Before he began winning, few seemed too concerned about Armstrong’s drug use. This was in an era when most everybody was doping. But once he was champion, Armstrong increasingly faced doping allegations. Each time, Armstrong correctly but deceitfully claimed he never failed a drug test. Occasionally, he also denied he ever used performance-enhancing drugs.

We now know more. Armstrong was a leader of a team that conspired to cover up rampant drug use. They also squelched and bullied potential whistleblowers. This conspiracy lasted for almost a decade.

In Armstrong’s mind, he never cheated. This is the most interesting, and self-reflecting aspect of the story. He believed unethical behavior becomes ethical in an unethical world.

Armstrong argued that doping did not give him an unfair advantage over others competing to win the Tour. He asserted that, at the elite level, almost every team was taking performance enhancing drugs, sometimes under doctor’s orders, often not, for decades. He also rationalized testosterone injections merely replaced hormones he lost because of his cancer.

Armstrong was not the most aggressive doper in cycling, and certainly not the worst among all elite athletes. Like many athletes, he believed doping was necessary to compete in a sport then rife with doping. Sporting authorities turned a blind eye in return for the 20 percent increase in bike speed doping provided. To racers, the difference between doping and riding clean was the difference between first and hundredth place. In fact, when Armstrong was recently stripped of his seven Tour wins, the sport failed to award first place to the seven runner-ups. They knew that some, and perhaps all, of the runner-ups doped too. Let’s not open up that can of worms. Let’s find a notorious scapegoat to hang out to dry, and keep the cash coming in.

The bigger story is that our culture tolerates deceit, especially when profitable. Unethical individuals sleep well at night because they rationalize to themselves that everybody does it, and one would be a chump not to.

There are bigger cheaters; the Madoff-Ponzi schemes that are more common than we want to believe; too-big-to-fail Wall Street corporations that expand their bottom line with complete disregard for whether their gains exceed the damage they wreak on others; too-big-to-jail insider traders who poison markets; too-big-to-compromise politicians who hold Main Street hostage so they can extract minor ideological victories; and those too-much-like-us who do awful things with a presumption of impunity because they see others get away with worse offenses.

Our economy has degenerated to a non-cooperative equilibrium in which some individuals harbor contempt for our collective interest. They rationalize to themselves that others would harm them if they don’t act first.

When the media breaks a cheating story, we sigh in relief that there is someone more notorious than the rest of us. We let ourselves believe that Armstrong’s evil is isolated and not widespread because, if we burst open that can of worms, the story becomes about all of us, what we have come to tolerate, and our prevailing culture, rather than simply about an unethical athlete.

Witnesses of the Armstrong interviews with Oprah Winfrey saw someone who wanted to win at any cost in a sport where dozens of competing athletes were doing the same. His winning attitude made him a hero, and then led to his disgrace. But, if we simply focus on Armstrong and express our collective outrage for 15 minutes, we avoid probing too deeply for ubiquitous unethical behavior.

Armstrong’s terrible transgressions pale compared to billions that Madoff stole from his investors, hundreds of billions America lost because of unethical behavior that caused the Global Financial Meltdown, or tens of trillions of lost wealth globally because we all now feel that financial markets are rigged in favor of insiders. We caught one. Now, there are just thousands or millions to go. And, while more than a thousand Main Street bankers were convicted in the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s, not one Wall Street banker was convicted in the world’s worst financial meltdown, brought about by Wall Street malfeasance.

It’s easier, though, if we only pillory Armstrong. The media creates legends, and we witness gleefully the almost inevitable downfall of these flawed humans. We gloat we are better than our media creations. We ought to realize that our socioeconomy is a glass house that is much more fragile than we like to believe. Meanwhile, if we simply demonize Armstrong, we can keep our hands clean, our heads in the sand and avoid true reform.

Colin Read contributes to, has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave, and chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Follow him on Twitter @ColinRead2040.