Cheat or Lose 

Take your pick—in pro sports today, it’s hard to stay clean and stay competitive

Louisiana voters figure that if elected leaders aren’t engaged in a little old-fashioned graft as a result of their office, they’re obviously not smart enough to be effective in the less remunerative parts of their jobs.
Maybe it’s not fair to pick on the Bayou State this week, but I have a theory about why Louisiana has such a long history of electing “allegedly” crooked politicians. Louisiana voters, so often castigated as tolerators of corruption by snooty residents of more enlightened states, actually have made a singularly sage and practical calculation. They figure that, in our political environment, if elected leaders aren’t engaged in a little old-fashioned graft as a result of their office, they’re obviously not smart enough to be effective in the less remunerative parts of their jobs. Most of the country still hasn’t recognized the wisdom of Louisiana voters on this subject, or at least won’t publicly acknowledge it. But, curiously, when it comes to sports—which Americans widely regard with much more cosmic importance than the Sisyphean doings of Washington mountebanks—the Louisiana philosophy prevails. And that’s why very few  of us are in a lather about last week’s revelation in France regarding Lance Armstrong’s drug test. No, Lance has not been proven guilty, in spite of the claim by the sport magazine L’Equipe that a recent test of a urine sample Armstrong submitted in 1999—the year of his first Tour de France victory—showed the presence of the banned performance-enhancing substance EPO. And, yes, the charge was made by a pack of Frenchies, which means that most of us give it about as much weight as the news analysis on al-Jazeera. Still, let me see a show of hands here. How many of you really, truly think Lance didn’t opt for better biking through chemistry? That’s about what I thought. And that’s what is especially revealing—not about Lance Armstrong, but about us. These days, almost any say-it-ain’t-so-Joe accusation against a big-time athlete sounds inherently plausible, even when it comes from a nation of liver-eating surrender monkeys who think cycling is a bigger deal than football. It’s not because we thought all along that Armstrong was a cheating scoundrel. We didn’t. And, all the supporting evidence notwithstanding, we weren’t much more likely to believe that Barry Bonds took steroids just because so many Americans think he is a scoundrel. We find the accusations credible because we know what most of us red-blood-cell-enhanced Americans would do if we were in Lance’s or Barry’s shoes. Think about it. Armstrong is in a sport where cheating is about as common as flies on a hog farm. Compared to this crowd, Don King looks like Diogenes. As the Tour de France has become progressively more grueling, the number of blood dopers seeking to improve their endurance has soared. The athletes who always ride clean—except, we thought, for Armstrong—have one thing in common: they lose. Meanwhile, the Tour offers a fatter purse and carries more cachet in America than ever before. That makes the choice even easier for most of us. We can ride on principle and watch as some doper wins the yellow jersey every day. Or we can join them to beat them. Like the great Louisiana philosopher Dr. John once sang, “If I don’t do it, somebody else will.” It’s the same with baseball. Don’t take steroids, and you risk that someone else will gain a competitive advantage—an advantage that’s not just about wins and playing time but contracts and endorsement deals. The question is not why Barry or Sammy or Mark or Rafael might inject the juice. It’s why, given the imbalance between potential rewards and penalties, they wouldn’t. If you’re a college football or basketball coach and you have a million-dollar annual salary that’s on the line, you wouldn’t be considered dishonorable in our culture to slip a little walkin’-around money to some of your players, or to pretend to look the other way when the alums hand them keys to a new car. You’d be a moron if you didn’t. Still, there’s a reason for us to ask Lance to say it ain’t so. In our society, very few figures have been able to capture our imaginations the way Armstrong has. With his almost mythic story—all-American boy overcomes cancer to dominate an event as no one has before—he got past our sturdy defenses of cynicism. Finding out that Lance Armstrong was dirty would be like discovering that Michael Jordan put Flubber in his shoes. In the end, though, we won’t be too surprised, and even less outraged, if Armstrong (or MJ, for that matter) turns out to have cheated. We almost expect our sports heroes to cheat when the stakes are high because we expect that most everyone else is cheating, too. And, besides, nobody today thinks the goal is to be clean. The goal—duh!—is to win. We’re about results, not excuses or details. That’s why I think perhaps the most quintessentially American slogan for our time was represented by the entourage of our most American idol, Elvis, with the letters “TCB” imposed over a lightning bolt. In the name of myth-breaking, I wonder whether this mark, which stands for “Taking Care of Business in a Flash,” shouldn’t replace “In God We Trust” on our coins. Maybe we could try it out first on the Louisiana state quarters.

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