On Friday morning, my sports-addled son was reading the newspaper. As I was hustling him, his friend and his sister out the door to camp, he asked, What happened with Lance Armstrong?
Deep breath. While this was not as tricky as distilling the birds and bees, it still required some fancy footwork. Did Armstrong dope or didn’t he? What did it mean that he’d decided to stop fighting the allegations that he’d used performance-enhancing drugs to propel him to his Tour de France success? How did a guy so revered from both athletic and philanthropic perspectives fall so far? I’m sure I wasn’t the only parent faced with addressing whether the greatest cyclist of all time had cheated and, more importantly, why. This wasn’t just about sports; this was about cheating in the quest to be the best. This was about right and wrong. It was a conversation that transcended wheels and spokes.
With the crew buckled in the car, I launched in, explaining that, for starters, it’s Armstrong’s word vs. the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s. Many people, of course, interpreted Armstrong’s announcement that he would no longer contest the accusations as a tacit admission of guilt. (And yes, I defined the word tacit.) Then I talked about the pressure and drive to succeed that prompts some star athletes to take steroids or hormones or the blood booster EPO, which Armstrong is accused of using. Then I talked about why that’s wrong. Pretending you’re something you’re not is always cheating, and that goes for situations that have absolutely nothing to do with sports or competition.
Complicating the situation, of course, is the Livestrong factor: my kids know several people who’ve battled cancer, and I told them it’s particularly sad that Armstrong, who had a 50% chance of surviving testicular cancer when he was in his 20s, finds himself with his reputation in ruins even as he’s raised nearly $500 million in the fight against cancer. It’s disappointing this is happening to a guy who’s done so much good far beyond anything he ever accomplished on two wheels.
Which brings us to yet another lesson: people make mistakes. No one’s perfect, and people make bad decisions every day. Most of those bad decisions don’t wind up as headline news, but occasionally — Joe Paterno and the Penn State debacle come to mind — they do.
It’s hard to understand how someone who is publicly celebrated as a hero could break the rules. We teach kids from an early age that cheating is wrong. But all around them, they see examples of athlete role models — Marion Jones, Mark McGwire, Tiger Woods, the list goes on — doing it in sports and in life. The message: Cheating is O.K. if you really, really want something and if you think you won’t get caught.
The response from my kids and their friend? Silence. Then they were scrambling out of the car, eager to start their day at sailing camp.
Had I not made an impression or were the kids just excited to navigate a catamaran? For some perspective on how to further parse the situation, I reached out to Larry Lauer of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University.
Lauer also works as a sports-psychology consultant and has counseled everyone from professional athletes to a 9-year-old hockey player. To all of them, he says: Think about the consequences of how you will eventually be viewed because of your actions today. “It goes back to what’s important to you,” says Lauer. “Do you want to be known as a cheater or someone who does things the right way? You need to think about what you value and how you want to be known.”
With younger kids, he says it’s best to keep it simple: If you cheat, you could get caught and you’ll have to suffer the consequences. Teens can go a little deeper, musing not just about the importance of doing the right thing but also pondering how in our digitally plugged-in world, perception is reality. “The court of public opinion is no longer just beat writers,” says Lauer. “Tiger Woods went from being one of the most respected athletes to one of the least respected in a few days. You can do one thing and ruin your credibility.”
That’s why Lauer’s wife shot down his idea of naming their baby after his favorite baseball player, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley. Nothing against Utley — he seems like a great guy; his foundation campaigns against animal cruelty — but you just never know. Says Lauer, who ultimately agreed with his wife: “You’re better off just not going there.”