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“Lancing” the Boil: The Ethical Conundrum Presented by Lance Armstrong

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“Listen, I’ve said it for seven years. I’ve said it for longer than seven years. I have never doped. I can say it again. But I’ve said it for seven years. It doesn’t help. But the fact of the matter is I haven’t. And if you consider my situation: A guy who comes back from arguably, you know, a death sentence, why would I then enter into a sport and dope myself up and risk my life again? That’s crazy. I would never do that. No. No way.” Lance Armstrong to Larry King and Bob Costas on Larry King Live August 25th 2005 

It appears that Lance Armstrong has confessed to cheating to win his historic 7 Tour de France cycling championships. Using a sophisticated means of blood doping he sometimes with the cooperation of his teams he, like the majority of the high level competition cyclists of his era used an illegal but often hard to detect means to bolster his ability to win.

Armstrong, like so many at the top level of his sport appears to have been a habitual cheater, liar and bully. The fact that he was a cancer survivor and had returned to the top of his sport made him a legend and gave him an almost mythic aura. Who could criticize such a heroic individual? Certainly his struggle to defeat cancer and return to the top of his sport was worth something and indeed it was. Armstrong became a legend and established a foundation that did and still is doing wonderful things for cancer victims.

If it was simply cheating and then getting caught the situation would be different. Armstrong was not different than many of his competitors and if it was like the cases of people in other sports who cheated and later either were caught or admitted their misdeeds it would be just another case of a sports cheater.

However in the Armstrong case the story is one that is not so simple. His also involves an aggressive cover up and willful destruction of the reputations of anyone who dared challenge him or accuse him of cheating. It involved attacks on the character of critics as well as threats made against them, even veiled physical threats. It involved legal actions to attempt to prevent the publication of articles or books that could damage him in multiple countries. It involved a campaign of lies that lasted over a decade. It also ensnared cancer victims as his charity foundation Livestrong was devoted to helping those battling the dread disease.

It is a case that will not simply interest sport writers, but one which will engage philosophers, ethicists and theologians for years to come. The reason is that it is so multifaceted and brings to the fore questions that most people care not to even think about, even though they fascinate us.

The questions are hard. Who would want to think that the cancer victims helped by Livestrong were not positive beneficiaries of Armstrong’s benevolence? It is certain that Armstrong’s foundation has done remarkable work. At the same time can Armstrong’s actions be justified simply because many people were benefited by them? What about the his victims? Those men and women who suffered professional, legal and financial reverses as well as had their reputations damaged for attempting to stand up to someone that looks by the actions committed against his critics and accusers to be a bully.

It is the classic question of whether the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few combined with the actions of one person to advance himself at the expense of others. Some would like to be able to fame Armstrong’s cheating and subsequent support of Livestrong and its tremendous work in helping people in a positive manner.

That can be done, but at what cost? We wrestle with such ethical questions all the time but seldom do we see the drama play out out in such a personal manner. Usually we are able to keep it theoretical and distant. But Armstrong, he had become a legend, a hero to many and

I think that most of us, me included were enamored with the myth of Armstrong the cancer survivor rising to unheard of heights in his sport. I think that this was especially the case in the United States where the thought of an American winning at the top levels of a sport that has few American long dominated by Europeans was particularly pleasurable, especially since most Americans couldn’t care less about competitive cycling. However, Armstrong got us to care about it, even if it was only when we saw Tour de France highlights on ESPN Sports Center.

Caught up in the myth we surrendered to it. It was attractive and it appeals to the underdog in all of us. However, it was a myth and the creation and sustainment of the myth created victims just as it helped others in need of live saving treatment as well as cancer research.

As for Armstrong, his confession and apology that will be aired on Oprah Winfrey’s show the next two nights I am of mixed feelings. Some like Mike Lupica have stated that it is another attempt of Armstrong to control the situation and the narrative. He could well be right and there is part of me, the cynical and realistic part that believes this. At the same time I would hope that Armstrong has had a real epiphany as to the consequences of his actions in the lives of the people who were his fans, his beneficiaries as well as his victims.

As for the very harsh remarks of Pat McQuaid the President of the International Cycling Union that “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling and he deserves to be forgotten in cycling….” I have a negative opinion. He and his championships, though tainted and no stripped from him are a part of the history of cycling. He helped popularize the sport in the United States. He and his tainted accomplishments cannot be erased as if he did not exist. No cycling bodies took any substantive actions against Armstrong during his competitive career. No sport was as inundated by a culture of cheating as professional cycling. Armstrong cannot be forgotten as McQuaid says he deserves to be. It is okay to say “never again” and work to build an authentic and honest competitive sport. But to erase and forget is to ensure that another Armstrong will come along. It is a cautionary tale.

As long as Armstrong brought attention and income to the sport his actions were tolerated and despite numerous accusations he was celebrated and because of his story as a cancer survivor many looked the other way. I have to say that I am part of that latter group that saw a cancer survivor winning as inspirational. I did not want to believe the accusations and I did not look to see or even pay attention to the things that he and his associates were doing to those attempting to bring the story to the light of public scrutiny.

As for Livestrong I do hope that it will survive and continue to help cancer victims. As for Armstrong I hope that his confession and admission of wrong doing are genuine and that he will make restitution to those that he bullied or ruined in maintaining the cover up. I am less concerned about his competitors in the Tour de France as so many of them were doping that it makes the steroids scandals in other sports pale in comparison.

I encountered Armstrong once in Iraq when he was on a tour with a number of celebrities. I had come back to my base of operations the day that he and his tour led by the now retired Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen came through. Since the number of people who could attend the show was limited and I wanted to make sure that junior personnel had a chance to see Armstrong, Robin Williams, Kid Rock and Lewis Black I did not attempt to go. The next morning I was walking to the dinning facility and passed Armstrong as he was walking back to is quarters. I said “good morning” and he returned the greeting and we both continued on our way. I figured that he didn’t need another person coming up to him to get an autograph and though he was a public figure on a USO morale tour I still attempt to honor some modicum of privacy. The tour left later that morning and my friend, Father Jose Bautista-Rojas a Catholic Chaplain who had escorted Mrs Mullen during the visit brought me a ball cap signed by both Armstrong and Robin Williams. I will keep it and remember the fact that Armstrong and those with him came to Iraq at the height of an unpopular war, but also to remind me that all of us have feet of clay.

I do hope that he is able to make his peace and reconcile with those that he has hurt or disappointed and that some good will come out of this for him, his family, those that benefit from Livestrong and the sport.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Tangled Mass of Emotions: Dad, the Boss, an ICU Death and the All-Star Game

The Big “A” that I knew

I am a mess the past day or so. Not that anything is bad or going wrong it is just that emotionally I am a mess.  As I try to get back into normal life I find emotions brought up by my dad’s death three weeks ago going all over the place.  Today was so strange; it actually began a couple of days ago when I finished the third chapter of my series on “Meeting Jesus and the Team at 7-11” entitled “A Death, a Rain Delay and a Visit from Saint Pete.” Since my dad’s death due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease I have experienced number of things that sent my emotions into overload because they somehow connected with dad and his death.  Over the past couple of days these intense emotional surges, I cannot call them swings because they are not swings, I am not going between depression and elation but rather experiencing strong emotional impulses as things remind me of my dad or of childhood.  I know that I am okay because grief and the emotions that follow the loss of a parent particularly your father if you are the oldest son are guaranteed to mess with you. They are normal, I am a highly trained pastoral caregiver but since I am not a Vulcan but a Romulan with probably a bit of Klingon mixed in the emotional surges that well up from under my normally cold and logical exterior are a real bitch, no wonder the Romulans wage war with such ferocity and the Klingons appear to be in a perpetually foul mood.  But I digress…

The past couple of weeks have been weird because I never know when something is going to trigger emotions that remind me of my dad.  Much of this of course revolves around baseball as it was my dad that taught me to love the game and through the connection between baseball and dad there has been, even when he was no longer himself due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s something that brought a sense of stability and peace to life, even when I was a post-Iraq PTSD mess.

Now I am a mess again as things that I see, hear and experience things that bring me back to dad.  At this moment my excrement is together but I have no idea what or when the next emotional surge will hit and I will be blubbering like I girl, not that there is anything wrong with that.

The past few days are a case in point. I went to Harbor Park on both Saturday and Sunday and had a great time, at the same time I felt like my dad was there. He never came to Norfolk during my time here because of his physical and deteriorating mental state but now since his death it almost feels like he is there with me.  I went to work Monday and had the on-call overnight duty at the Medical Center and was doing pretty well but in the late afternoon I was called for a cardiac arrest of an 81 year old man and off and on throughout the evening was called back as he continued to get worse to take care of his family, a wife of 63 years and a son a couple of years old than me.  I really wanted this man to live but it became apparent as the night wore on that he would not survive the night and his wife asked me to perform the Sacrament of Healing or what some used to refer to as “Last Rights” which I did with she and her son present using the rite form the Book of Common Prayer.  With his condition somewhat stable I went to our call room where I attempted to get a little rest on the bed from hell.   Of course getting to sleep on said bed is difficult at best and since when I am on duty the hyper vigilance factor is real and present it takes a while to get to sleep.  About 0215 my fitful sleep was interrupted by the pager going off and with it the message to come back to the ICU as the patient was dying.  I went back and was with the family when he died and until they left the building about 0315.

The next morning or rather later in the morning, but not much later I was back up and preparing for a meeting across the bay at the VA Medical Center. While I prepared I found out that George Steinbrenner had died.  When I felt the emotions well up in me, especially while I was watching ESPN’s Sports Center and various players, managers and other sports figures were interviewed about the Boss the emotions started coming in waves, funny how that happens.  As I reflect on this I guess it is because in many ways my dad and Steinbrenner were similar, passionate, outspoken, driven but also caring and good fathers who often showed compassion to others but in a private manner. Now my dad was not a fan of Steinbrenner or the Yankees, but the Boss engendered such emotions in people, positive and negative I am not surprised my dad had little regard for the American League after all he was a National League man.  When I heard Derek Jeter, Joe Morgan, Paul O’Neil and so many others talk of their relationship with Steinbrenner I laughed, cried and reflected on dad.  Strange connection but a connection anyway.

Photo Day 1970 with Angels Manager “Lefty” Phillips

Later in the evening I went to Gordon Biersch for a salad, beer and to watch some of the Major League Baseball All-Star game which was being played at the home of the Los Angeles Angels, at one time th California Angels, Anaheim Stadium, the place where more than any my dad taught me a love and respect of the game of Baseball.  As I looked at this cathedral of baseball, now expanded and Disneyfied since I was a child shagging foul balls and collecting autographs I was taken back in time.  I remember the very first game that dad took us to at Anaheim Stadium as it was then known as the “Big A” like it was yesterday, July 4th 1970 the day after Clyde Wright pitched a no-hitter. On this day the Angels did not win, the A’s won 7-4.  I saw the first major league home runs that I can remember seeing in person that night as we sat in the lower level of the right field corner near the foul pole. At that time the bullpen was adjacent to the grandstand and there were no mountains, valleys, palm trees or whatever else is out there, a log ride perhaps, but I digress. Back then there was a warning track and a fence as well as an amazing scoreboard in the shape of a big block “A” with a halo near the top.

That night I saw home runs by Reggie Jackson, Bert Campaneris and Sal Bando for the A’s and Jim Spencer for the Angels.  Jim “Catfish” Hunter got the win and Jim “Mudcat” Grant got the save. Rudy May took the loss for the Angels.  The fact that I saw two future Hall of Fame players in this game was amazing, the winning pitcher, Hunter and Reggie Jackson.  Later in the year I entered a contest and wrote why Jim Spencer was my favorite Angel.  I had met Spencer at an autograph signing event at the local Von’s grocery store and when the contest winners were announced I was a runner up. I got tickets behind home plate and my name announced by legendary sportscaster Dick Enberg on the radio and my name in the Long Beach newspaper that sponsored the contest.  Dad took us probably to 30 or more games that year and I fell in love with the game.

Back in those days teams still had photo days where players would be available on the field for pictures and autographs and on autograph day in 1970 my dad took my brother and I onto a major league ball field for the first time and I was in awe.  The warning track was a red clay and the field was lush green as I looked back in toward home plate I wondered what it would be like to play in such a place.  From that season on the game had a hold on me. Dad and I did not have much in common, my brother I think is actually more like him than me but Dad taught me about the game at the stadium and in our back yard and gave me a gift that connected him to me more than anything else, something that I didn;t realize until much later in life.  I looked at that stadium on television and I saw the field, the main part of the stadium is still so much like it was when dad took us there and as I looked at it and remembered him I was in tears, I had a hard time keeping my emotions in, kind of embarrassing to be in tears at a bar during a baseball game but I was doing my best to hold it in.  Judy told me that I probably needed to talk to Elmer the Shrink about this but he is out of town until next week.  So I’ll wait, everyone deserves time off.

While we were still there and I was working on my second Kölsch style sömmerbrau a friend came up to me. He was a bit lit up having consumed his fair share and maybe more for the night but God used him and in his own way to bring comfort to me in what appeared rather earthy and even ludicrous manner but when he was said and done I felt better.  I think that he will need to serve as a model for some character in the Meeting Jesus and the Team series, I have no idea which figure from the Bible or Church history just yet but I will look around because what he said even though a tad under the influence of decidedly good beer was profound.  God does use people in strange and mysterious ways.

So I will continue I am sure to have emotional surges whenever something reminds me of my dad and I guess in the long run that is a good thing as my friend said it would make me better at what I do, I have now experienced the loss of my dad and am that much closer to the time that I will pass away, a generation has been removed between me and the end of my earthly life. This is something that so many people that I know already deal with.  It allows me to be connected to them in a way that just a few weeks back that I could not be.  It makes me a bit more human and more connected.

Dad, the Boss and the All-Star game at Anaheim Stadium, it is amazing what this concoction of images, memories and feelings can turn me into, a blubbering girl, not that there is anything wrong with that.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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