The Thing About Lance Armstrong

By every standard applied to Armstrong’s decision to come clean, my decision to get sober was a disingenuous act designed to make sure I could continue to make money and regain some standing that I’d lost after years of lying to people.

***

I don’t know Lance Armstrong personally, and I have no desire to join the coming cacophony of media voices that will opine and dissect his coming admission that he used performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) while winning seven Tour de France cycling championships.

My casual contact with The Lance can be boiled down into two succinct paragraphs:

Ten years ago, I dated a woman in Austin who competed in the Ironman triathlon. Her cyclist friends knew Lance. He wasn’t a well-liked figure in the community back then. He was, the stories went, the kind of guy who might push you into oncoming traffic on a training ride if you got in his way.

A few years later, Alex Heard, my former boss at Wired magazine, became the editorial director at Outside magazine, one of the few magazines to take aim at Armstrong and refuse to back down from its reporting (unlike the cyclist media community). We’ve publicly conversed about Armstrong on Twitter, but I wouldn’t speculate on what he actually thinks. I can only say that Alex is extremely proud of the magazine’s work on this subject, and he’s blogging about the upcoming announcement.

Those two are – at best – wildly insufficient and weak links that give me no standing to pass any judgment about Armstrong’s motivations before and after the Thursday announcement.

As I’ve listened, read, and watched the media spectacle, though, I’ve found myself struggling to understand why I’m not angry with Armstrong. He is a world-class cheater in his sport, a fact that is only new to folks who haven’t followed cycling with any critical eye, and that has been enough to turn me against nearly every other athlete in every other sport.

Yet something about Lance, though, is more familiar.

***

“Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda

I grew up playing baseball.

That sentence, while succinct in explaining what I did, doesn’t do justice to the extent I did it. In Cincinnati, baseball is a way of life. To explain what that means:

My first year playing tee-ball, I broke my arm. After consulting the doctor and determining I could do no more damage, my father had the doctor set the cast below my elbow so I could continue playing.

I tell you that so you understand that world in which I grew up. My father, a loving and caring man, was devoted to sports, and I, as his son, became devoted as well. I have never once regretted that. The lessons I learned playing baseball have carried me through the very dark parts of my life, and I am thankful each day my father pushed me athletically.

When I tell you baseball was a way of life in Cincinnati, though, I need you to understand: Failure wasn’t an option, and quitting wasn’t on the menu.

As I got older, my talent levels developed far beyond my body. I was a small, skinny, fast kid with a great glove, a good bat, and an average arm. As I progressed into high school, our team consistently ranked in the top ten in the Ohio state polls, but I found myself struggling to keep competing.

A third basement (before moving to shortstop), I found myself pushing ever harder just to keep within spitting distance of best players in the city. I played with a semi-controlled rage, one that spilled into the field on more than one occasion when an opposing player would cross my path on the diamond.

I slid spike-high into thighs to break up double plays, I stood on top of the plate pointing my bat at the pitcher as he wound up, and I learned the subtle art of interfering with runners without touching them. And it wasn’t uncommon to see me throw a bat or smash a helmet.

Rage was how I tapped into the last bits of potential I had. I was defiant until the very end.

When injuries finally ended my career in American Legion ball, I was left without baseball and without a place to funnel that rage.

It would be 16 years before I learned how to control that beast.

***

Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.” – Carl Jung

For days, or maybe weeks, or maybe months, I sat in my darkened apartment, fading in and out of conscious thought. After nearly 20 years of drinking, I’d finally committed myself to getting – and living – sober.

That decision always sounds more admirable until the actual story comes out.

My decision came after  spent a very long night in county jail after getting arrested for driving drunk. I awoke, drunk and alone, as warm piss from another county resident dribbled on my head.

The story involves more than just a night drinking, but that brings in too many people who didn’t ask to be in the story, and that’s not really what the story is about.

The point is that my decision to get sober wasn’t some grand gesture on my part. I didn’t get clean because I’d decided I’d hurt too many people, broken up too many relationships, betrayed too many trusts, and all of those warm, fuzzy feelings that people hope for when somebody finally confesses they have broken everything that matters.

I got sober because I’d run out of every other option. I had nowhere else to go, nobody to turn to, and no way out.

In so many ways, I was Lance.

By every standard applied to Armstrong’s decision to come clean, my decision to get sober was a disingenuous act designed to make sure I could continue to make money and regain some standing that I’d lost after years of lying to people.

And I don’t make this statement as a defense for Armstrong. Whether he survives this episode will depend upon how much he is truly ready to face his responsibilities, not on the manner of his apology.

He will soon find that the real work comes when the cameras are off.

But it’s equally disingenuous for people to praise my recovery (or the recovery of any addict, who likely “came clean” only after every other option was removed) while discounting Armstrong’s apology.

Addiction takes on many forms, but recovery always begins in the same place: when you’re cornered.

Those who want to forget that are more concerned with personal vendettas than they are with the person.

***

“There are some things that time cannot mend… some hurts that go too deep…that have taken hold. Bilbo once told me his part in this tale would end…that each of us must come and go in the telling. Bilbo’s story was now over. There would be no more journeys for him…save one.” – Frodo Baggins

The great contradiction in life is that we demand excellence, but demonize the elements of people that make them great.

I don’t say this as a way to give Armstrong – or anyone – a pass. I don’t envy the road Lance is about to travel because I’ve been down that road, as every recovering addict has been.

Along the way, he is going to find that everything that made him who he was as a champion will need to die. He will find, if he faces his accusers with humility, that every step towards redemption involves a punishment that chips away at who he was.

He will be forced to sit silently as those he tried to destroy take aim as his character, at the essence of what he was.

If it’s anything like my recovery, he will fight this every step of the way. He will lash out, he will make mistakes, he will regress, and those who are hoping he fails will scrutinize him with great glee.

And when that scrutiny happens, he will not have his old ways to fall back upon. He will learn ever so slowly that the only way to win redemption is not to play.

You can’t rewrite the past; you can only write a new ending.

He can’t tap the anger and the rage that propelled him to the top of his sport (a drug-filled sport in which 6 of the 7 wins that were vacated have no winner because the other top cyclists were implicated).

And in those moments, his redemption – if it comes – will be tested. Then he will begin to understand exactly what he has done.

He will understand that Lance Before can’t exist with Lance After.

Certainly there will be those who will never forgive him for what he has done. The cyclists I know despise him.

That is the burden of recovery and redemption: not every wound can be fixed.

***

I am sitting in my office writing this (and sharing my thoughts with Alex Heard on Twitter), examining my lot in the world. In the 4 years and 7 months since I made the disingenuous decision to stop drinking, my life has changed immeasurably.

Two weeks ago, I married my best friend. She is the gentlest, kindest, and most beautiful woman I know. She feels life in ways I can’t comprehend and I love her for this. To her, every moment matters.

She is the woman I dreamed of marrying back when I dreamed of such things, and the kind of woman that 4 years, 7 months, and 1 day ago would have never looked at me twice.

Redemption and recovery, when done right, doesn’t change your life, it creates a new life. I am, by all accounts, unrecognizable today (at least to those who have allowed me to remain in their life, a number that isn’t as big as I’d like).

That’s the thing about Lance Armstrong. I think of disingenuous redemption when I think about Lance Armstrong because I think about me.

And I have a very hard time hating either one of us.

6 comments
Brad Scharlott
Brad Scharlott

Wow! I had no idea, Brad. Great piece. Did not know you married. Congrats! Some suggest Armstrong may be a true sociopath; if so, he probably won't change in the way you have.

Andrew Hyde
Andrew Hyde

A fantastic piece. Thanks for writing it.

susank
susank

You, sir, are amazing. I am so proud of you!

Shawn F.
Shawn F.

Your baseball career sounds an awful lot like my motorcycle racing career; a dose of talent pushed to the next level by rage. I broke more bones though!

Brad_King
Brad_King

It's hard to say whether is he or not. I know my friends who know him says he's largely unlike-able. But so many great athletes are. What we'll find out now - and what no single interview will ever fix - is how committed he is to changing the second half of his story.

Brad_King
Brad_King

I didn't break many bones, but I didn't make a lot of friends along the way. I was one of those dudes who you wanted to play with, but not against. And either way, likely want to punch me in the face at least once.