These Guys Are NOT ‘Heroes’ … and Maybe We Are to Blame

Let me get a couple of things out of the way – I am not equating the potential actions of these two men, nor declaring guilt on them. There are many things we do not know and will never know. But the reality is that these two men – Lance Armstrong and Joe Paterno – are both famous due to involvement with sports, both had significant accomplishments in sport, and both have recently faced an increasing weight of evidence tarnishing their accomplishments and reputations.

And both have legions of supporters who decry any attempt to say anything negative about these ‘heroes’. But let’s recall – these guys are sports icons, and I think that any rational person would agree that the harm done by allowing a single child to be molested FAR outweighs ANY accomplishment in ANY sport EVER.

Lance Armstrong
Armstrong is famed as a champion cyclist, cancer survivor and founder of an immensely successful foundation that seeks to fundraise to eradicate cancer. He was in the news this week for deciding to not fight the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Here is a synopsis:

The fight between Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is over:

“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough,'” Armstrong, 40, wrote in a statement emailed to The Times and other news agencies.

“For me, that time is now. I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999.”

Armstrong’s attorneys asked a USADA attorney to turn the matter over to UCI, the international cycling union, but USADA maintains it retains jurisdiction to strip the titles.

Armstrong never tested positive for performance-enhancing use during his decade-plus of Tour races.

Now, as he abandons his impassioned fight against anti-doping authorities, the perception of an American hero who rallied from cancer to become champion of perhaps sport’s most demanding endurance test has been recast.

For many of us, the Tour de France was something we would hear snippets about on the sporting news but never really watch. Then in 1999 there was an amazing story of a young guy who had beaten testicular cancer and gone on to win one of the most grueling endurance tests in all of sports. Then he did it again … and again … and again!

While we continued to be thrilled and amazed at the Tour and Armstrong’s performance, we also learned that cycling was perhaps the dirtiest of all sports in terms of heavy use of performance-enhancing drugs. In fact, pretty much the entire 2005 ‘top 10’ Tour finishers were excluded from the 2006 race – except for Armstrong. And Floyd Landis (an Armstrong team-mate) who WON in 2006 was stripped of the title for doping.

For me there are three key aspects: cancer, doping, and LiveStrong.

LiveStrong is an amazing foundation that is raising tons of money for cancer research, and has seen a flurry of donations since the letter. It is clear that the brand has tremendous support and goodwill, and is doing good to fight cancer. When a few years ago Armstrong un-retired and doping allegations started surfacing, my initial concern was for LiveStrong. Bottom line: cycling is a game, cancer (and LiveStrong’s impact) is REAL life.

So I clearly wanted LiveStrong to thrive, but does the ends justify the means?

Going back to 2006, Armstrong was already a well known elite cyclist … but was suddenly derailed by life threatening testicular cancer diagnosis at 25. He was very fortunate that surgery along with chemo eradicated the cancer, and he has been cancer-free for 15 years! His story of survival paired with triumph is inspirational and is what helped fuel the success of his brand. However, during a lawsuit a few years back allegations that he had admitted wide-ranging performance-enhancing drug (PED) use to his oncologist came out, along with the potential that since there have been multiple PED-to-cancer links, perhaps he caused his own cancer through doping. A bizarre and totally unsubstantiated story – but likely the type of thing Armstrong wouldn’t want to see further investigated as it would undoubtedly hurt his brand.

As for the doping allegations and his announcement, what is interesting is that for me – and likely many others – is that it seemed to come out of the blue, whereas in reality the USADA charged Armstrong and others in June, and it was only after an appeal to a court to block the USADA failed that he announced he was dropping his fight.

For background, it is worth noting that Armstrong has not failed a drug test – ever. And he has been tested significantly, to be sure. For many, that is evidence enough that he really is the victim of an ‘unconstitutional witch hunt’. But let us be clear – many people have been convicted of murder without a murder weapon or body found, so there are both ways of hiding direct evidence and ways of demonstrating guilt without direct evidence.

The full text of the letter in which the USADA charged Armstrong and several others can be found here. What is in the letter?
– Descriptions of PEDs used by the USPS racing team, as well as how they were administered.
– Specific allegations of who did what, when and how it was done
– Discussion about cover-ups through blood-transfusions and other masking techniques.

It is also worth looking at some of the other circumstantial evidence: EVERY person who finished second to Armstrong has been found to have used PEDs … EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Also, pretty much his entire OWN TEAM, as well as many competitors have described and corroborated testimony about on-track and off-track enhancement methods and routines.

And it is worth noting that he talks about ‘no tests being positive’ without ever actually denying doping. It reads like he was saying ‘they didn’t catch me, why won’t they just stop trying already’ rather than ‘I didn’t do it, why won’t they leave me alone’. But while the drug tests have never been positive, there have been numerous other tests showing indirect correlators such as heart size and other blood parameters that fluctuated over time in a way indicative of doping.

Of course, the handling by the USADA and their chief Travis Tygart has not exactly won them any admirers

No one is disputes he is a great champion cyclist, and as a cancer survivor he is an inspiration – but like so many champions was unable to know when to put his own needs aside. Most people seem to think he is guilty – but really don’t care:

while the American cyclist “is guilty but in a lot of people’s eyes, he’s still an inspiration”.

“I’m absolutely convinced that he did [dope] but I’m also convinced that he is the victim of a witch hunt,”

His story is one that is still mostly positive – cancer survivor, leads a great foundation, champion cyclist.

But ever since he decided to come back after retirement, he has invited increased scrutiny (a ‘witch hunt’ some say) which has revealed increasingly negative things. Now when kids look at him as a champion, it is with an asterisk similar to so many baseball greats of the last couple of decades. Suddenly instead of a hero you have someone with such a huge ego to feed and need to be seen as better than all others that they are willing to go to any length – and take any number of people with them – to feed their ego-trips and need for adulation. Including cheating, and conspiracy, and use of drugs that have shown long-term health effects, and so on.

And THAT is not heroic.

But it is NOTHING next to the absolute scumbag that is Joe Paterno.

Joe Paterno

It amazed me that when seeing the Armstrong articles, there were more than a couple of people who cited Paterno as the LAST person the media took apart for no reason but headlines like this.

Wait … WHAT?

The argument, as far as I can tell, is that because Joe Paterno didn’t molest anyone – and particularly because he was a beloved football coach (again … a GAME), that he didn’t do anything wrong. And that the focus should be on Sandusky, who was the actual child molester.

The problem is that Sandusky was already dealt with by his conviction of abusing at least 10 kids. That immediately shifts focus on to what could have been done differently to prevent this, if anything: and the horrible answer is that 9 of the kids could have been spared, and that Joe Paterno is central to why they were not.

The other problem for Paterno apologists is the 3-Cs: Complicit, Conspire, and Condone.

To be Complicit with a crime means knowing that a crime has occurred and doing nothing about it in terms of reporting to authorities. Joe Paterno knew that Sandusky was under investigation for a 1998 assault of two boys in the showers, yet never spoke about it to Sandusky nor did he take steps from preventing further occurrences. That could have been ‘bad judgment’, but in 2000 when the NEXT abuse report came from a younger assistant coach that more or less replicated the 1998 incident, Paterno went from ‘bad judgment’ to ‘complicit’ very quickly by not involving authorities.

Conspiracy is what came next: Paterno knew everything, and was arguably the most powerful person at Penn State (perhaps the President of the school would be equal or a bit higher). School VP Schulz and Athletic Director Curley had a plan that involved talking to Sandusky about the incident and use of the facility, talking to the organization where the boys came from, and reporting it to the department of welfare. But apparently after talking to Paterno, Curley decided the best course of action was … nothing. Not informing authorities, not informing coaches to make sure Sandusky never brought a child to the facility again, nothing. Which ends up being pretty much the course of action from Paterno the LAST time.

To Condone something is not to approve, but rather to know and accept that it is happening and make no attempt to stop it – and further, to allow for it to continue. And let’s be clear – Joe Paterno condoned Jerry Sandusky abusing boys in the Penn State facilities. It is like Sandusky was the ‘guy in the van’ sitting outside of school for a target to molest, and Paterno provided him the parking spot and candy. Not saying it was just Paterno – but given his status and power at the school, he had everything needed to make it stop with a single word … or to be complicit in allowing it to continue.

The ‘why’s are easy – to avoid the scandal, to not damage the Penn State reputation, to preserve his legacy, and to protect a friend. Sadly some of his final actions were to lie and downplay his knowledge and involvement in the cover-up – his statements have been contradicted by evidence and documentation, showing he CLEARLY knew much more and could have done much more.

Joe Paterno is not a hero, he merely won some football games. Whoopie! A game. And in exchange he traded away the safety, future, and mental welfare of AT LEAST a dozen children. Any ONE of those kids is worth more than the foolish reputation of a team playing a game.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Heroes

I grew up in the anti-hero era. Both Kennedys were dead, as was MLK and Malcolm X, Watergate was coming, Vietnam tore apart the country, rock icons were dropping like flies, the 70s malaise was pummeling faith in America, and so on. Soldiers weren’t heroes, politicians weren’t heroes, entertainment icons were either mingling with politicians or protesting them or meandering aimlessly without a clue. People began to realize that we are all just people – flawed in many ways, but some were great artists or musicians or athletes or whatever. And that allowed us to aspire to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix without it meaning we needed to aspire to or approve of the lifestyle that killed him.

At some point over the last few decades, and certainly since 9/11, our need for heroes has returned and escalated. Everyone famous is a role model, everyone who does anything is a hero. The problem is that we have also increased our scrutiny of everyone, and deliver way too much information 24/7 via paparazzi and celeb-watch blogs. This has totally changed the way we deal with celebrities, and has destroyed their ability to be ‘just a quarterback’ or whatever.

This sort of thing puts enormous pressure on athletes and celebrities alike – it is no longer good enough to be a solid team player like Dennis Johnson or Carl Yastremski … you need to be a ‘hero’ like LeBron James or Mark McGuire, regardless of what it takes.

And while I certainly applaud that we no longer blame soldiers for being in the conflicts our government tosses them into (which was even more ironic since Vietnam was a draft and now we are an all-volunteer army), are we actually doing them any favors calling EVERY SINGLE ONE of them a ‘hero’ from the second they enlist? I mean, I will not for a second downplay the commitment to their country and courage it takes to choose to enter into such a potentially dangerous and even deadly situation; but each of those kids carries with them an ideal of what being ‘a hero’ means.

And those ideals don’t always match the experiences the kids encounter in a real battle situation, where it is quite possible that the person you just trained for six months to defend their own country will turn around and shoot you in the face. And as we have seen from Iraq, under those pressures too often the results are not particularly heroic. And even if they were, coming home to a quick ‘heroes welcome’ followed up with … nothing, can be extremely trying. So what benefit have we really done these brave and sacrificing men and women by exalting them as heroes up front and not providing support afterwards.

No one is prepared to be a hero in 2012 – I was called one a few years back as I screeched to a halt and ran to rescue a happy little toddler who had escaped out a door and wandered right into a busy road. I was no hero – I was a guy who saw an incredibly dangerous situation that I couldn’t allow to proceed, who then went home to squeeze my wife and boys really hard. But that was the end of my story – I have since seen that the family quickly put up a fence and replaced the front door, but that was it.

We Get the Heroes We Demand

Think about Joe Paterno – he could have been a huge hero in 2001 by reporting Sandusky, launching probes to uncover what ELSE had happened, and been an even bigger legend for stepping down for failing to act in 1998. I would be singing his praises, and the Penn State story would have been about one scumbag pedophile and a university and legendary coach who took a risk by revealing these seedy activities at its facilities but ended up winning in the long run.

Same for Lance Armstrong – had he won a single Tour de France (even if he DID dope to do so) and then left to work on his foundation and only raced in fundraising events, he would have the most amazing legacy of triumph over tragedy and a legacy of devoting his life to doing good for others.

Instead, both fell into a common trap – the desire to be ‘the best of all time’. Paterno kept pursuing the ‘most wins ever’, and Armstrong the ‘most Tour victories in a row’. They did so because that is how they gain acclaim – the LeBron or. Kobe vs. Michael thing keeps coming up, because it isn’t enough that LeBron or Kobe be absolutely phenomenal players, it is whether they are better than Michael or Bird or Magic. The focus on those things absolutely changes a player and his relationship to a team and his team mates.

And in the end we end up with some very non-heroic heroes that we have in no small part helped to create. It starts with kids: we all know parents who need their child to be THE BEST at everything, whether or not it is true. They establish metrics and advertise capabilities that are unreasonable, and begin a pattern where kids unable to meet those standards will cheat and hide their concerns or misgivings.

Don’t wish for your kid to be a hero. Aim higher – wish for them to be the very best they can be at what they love, and to carry that into everything else in life.

Categories: Editorials, Rants and Raves

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6 replies

  1. This is one of those articles that I wish I had written. Thank you.

  2. I have to respectfully disagree with your assessment of Lance Armstrong.

    Your opinion is shared by many columnists and bloggers, and I have read and watched video lambasting Armstrong for his “admission of guilt” by not continuing to fight allegations of doping.

    To me, this smacks of cold-war McCarthyism whereby the taking of the Fifth Amendment by witnesses was twisted into an admission of guild by McCarthy and his cronies. What was once a well-respected right that had no implications beyond not testifying was turned into a tacit admission of guilt.

    Perhaps the vilifying of Armstrong in the court of public opinion does not equal the injustices done during the McCarthy era, but I think it speaks volumes about our attitudes towards people who are accused of wrongdoing that we immediately assume guilt when a person pleads no-contest or settles a matter short of trial. People would like to believe that our current legal system is perfect, but in fact it is horribly broken. If you argue that the legal system is indeed flawed and yet you persist in arguing that Armstrong is guilty, then you are foolishly talking out of both sides of your mouth. Armstrong gave up because he recognized that he was in a fight that he had a significant chance of losing. And he had a chance of losing the fight not because he was guilty, but rather that in a civil matter, guilt is determined not by standards of “beyond a reasonable doubt” but rather by a “preponderance of the evidence.”

    Time will tell if the USADA will release the full scope of it’s “evidence” against Armstrong, and I don’t want people to think that I am trying to argue that Armstrong is clearly innocent of the charges. Rather, I am arguing that to make an assumption of guilt or innocence based upon such flawed data points such as interpretation of actions, reading-between-the-lines analysis of quotations, or analyzing tea leaves is highly suspect.

    I have been sued for malpractice, and I have settled the matter out of court. Was the fact that I settled an admission of malpractice on my part? Hell no! I settled because the amount for which I could settle the matter out of court was far less than the cost of bringing the suit to trial and negated the possibility that the jury would somehow find in favor of the petitioner.

    Let’s just please not jump to conclusions.

  3. Interesting article, Mike.

    Anyone remember Alberto Contador? (Washington Post)

    “Contador was found to have a minuscule, insignificant amount of clenbuterol in his urine during the 2010 Tour de France. After hearing 4,000 pages of testimony and debate, CAS acknowledged that the substance was too small to have been performance-enhancing and that its ingestion was almost certainly unintentional. Therefore he was guilty. He received a two-year ban.

    CAS’s rationale? “There is no reason to exonerate the athlete so the ban is two years,” one member of the panel said.” – Washington Post article (

    I cannot comment on Armstrong’s guilt or innocence, but the mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement are clearly broken and often appear capriciously applied. The regulatory agencies seem to be operating on the premise that athletes are guilty until proven innocent. An interesting take on this and the flaws in anti-doping regulation and burden of proof can be see in the Pepperdine Law Journal (Arbitrating Sports: Reflections on USADA/Landis, the Olympic Games, and the Future of International Sports Dispute Resolution) titled “Lessons from USADA v. Jenkins: You Can’t Win When You Beat a Monopoly” (

  4. Thanks for the insightful comments. As I mentioned, I have no clue about whether or not Armstrong DID dope – or as Bryan points out, whether those who have been ‘convicted’ are actually guilty.

    What I do know is that cycling has *earned* a reputation as a doping-heavy sport, and that the medicine of doping is ahead of the detection technology. So the various groups need to either throw their hands up and say ‘whatever’ or use the best possible means to police the situation. Neither is a great solution.

    Also, as I said, regardless of actual guilt – people have gone to jail for murder on less than the evidence and testimony I have read about Armstrong.

    But in the end my biggest problem with him has nothing to do with doping – it is the egocentricity. As soon as he found fame through the Tour win and cancer survival, he leveraged that into general celebrity, which naturally led him to ditch the wife that supported him and run off with a random hollywood skank, which of course didn’t last. And that inflated ego and celebrity-chasing brought him out of retirement – where he clearly put his own inflated sense of importance before the foundation, family, or the sport in general.

    At the Komen 5k I ran in May they put the cancer survivors at the front of the pack, called them out to celebrate what they had done, and generally put the focus on them. And that is as it should be – they have all been through a tremendous ordeal. It is great when someone can then turn tragedy to help others throughsomething like LiveStrong … but there is a turning point that I think Armstrong has passed.

    The whole thought that ‘how can you win when you have to appeal a body about the actions of that body’ is very, very true. Think the police, or the government … getting anything like fairness when someone in monopolistic power has decided you are wrong is extremely difficult.

  5. I cannot think of a single athlete who has been stripped of a title or banned from a sport without definitive evidence (i.e., “A” and “B” samples that have both tested positive) of doping. This is a first – is it not?

    I have grown weary of reading unproven allegations against athletes. Sports Illustrated had an article during the Olympics talking about spoken allegations, without evidence, against a 15 or 16 year old Chinese swimmer, barely mentioning the incredible growth in performance by a similarly aged American woman in the Olympics who has avoided the smears, and not mentioning at all a 15 year old Lithuanian woman who won gold in an event that she was not expected to even reach the final. So it goes. Why is the Chinese woman implicated but not the other two? Is it not true that the growth on performance for each is just as likely to be completely natural rather than a result of doping?

    I will continue to reserve judgement about Lance Armstrong and doping until more definitive evidence of his cheating is presented, rather than “signs of use” of EPO in 2009 (well after his tour wins) and anonymous allegations against him by former teammates (at least two of whom have been caught with tainted samples). Armstrong talks of a witch hunt exactly because the federal lawsuit against him was dropped and suddenly USADA found this evidence against him – evidence which they refuse to share. We should be very, very careful of accepting claims against anyone without at least a preponderance of evidence (if not beyond a reasonable doubt.) I think I still have a reasonable doubt in this case.

    Joe Paterno is a sad story, but let’s not forget that compared with his peers, he ran a program that emphasized classwork and graduation over taking easy classes, with “tutors” doing the work of the athletes. It is easy to tar him with the Sandusky affair, but let’s not forget that he was better than most in his profession. Graduation rates at Penn State were almost always in the top of all Division 1 schools, and the academic performance gap between white and minority student-athletes who played football at Penn State was almost always zero – very, very rare in Division 1 football.


  1. Lance Armstrong’s Offenses Transcend Cheating, Are More About Abuse And Coercion