Armstrong, Bonds, Steroids, and Bias

Barry Bonds was forcibly retired from baseball despite general agreement that he could still hit a ball better than most active players. No team would hire him, because he had become the symbol of baseball’s steroid and performance-enhancing drugs scandal that casts a permanent shadow over the game’s image, statistics, integrity, and current stars. Bonds never has admitted to using P.E.D.’s, but the evidence that his remarkable late-career success was illicitly aided by banned substances is overwhelming, and indeed was overwhelming while he was playing. [I have written about the fairness of judging Bonds a cheater and the tortured rationalizations employed by his defenders here, here, and here.] At the same time, another individual who dominates his sport, cyclist Lance Armstrong, has managed to convince most of the media and his adoring public that accusations that he used steroids are false, even though the circumstantial evidence against him rivals what has condemned Bonds. This has always had the stench of a double standard; now, in the wake of new allegations by a former team mate, the only excuses for not giving Armstrong the Bonds treatment are unethical ones.

Like Bonds, Armstrong was very good and then became extraordinary, at an age when most athletes are beginning to decline. He emerged from life-threatening cancer in 1999 to begin an unprecedented six-years of total domination in his sport, in which doping was more prevalent than in baseball’s most tainted years. In 1999, the year Armstrong re-emerged as a champion racer, he tested positive for corticosteroids. The charge was dismissed when Armstrong produced a post-dated doctor’s note explaining that he had been using a prescription salve for saddle sores. (At the time, Armstrong’s personal masseuse was quoted as being surprised to hear about saddle sores, since she massaged the cyclist on most days and noticed none.) But Armstrong was a cancer survivor, an inspirational hero, and a nice guy, and his word was good enough. Then, after Armstrong’s seventh Tour championship in 2005, a French sports daily released a story that 1999 research tests of  Armstrong had come up with three positive results for steroids Those results too were explained away.

There was more. Greg LeMond, the three-time Tour champion who himself is one of international cycling’s icons, said he was certain Armstrong was cheating with steroids.  Betsy Andreu, the wife of  former rider Frankie Andreu, claimed she heard Armstrong admit using performance enhancing drugs. Jealousy and rumor, decided the press. Armstrong was the face of the sport, a magnet for cancer research contributions, and an inspiration to kids all over the world. The cycling world defended him, and few journalists had the courage to even suggest that he might not be clean.

Armstrong is also white. Barry Bonds, who is black, was also surly, uncommunicative, intimidating and much disliked, both in the club house and in the press box. He had few defenders in baseball’s front offices, and many prominent figures in the game made it clear that they felt Bonds was cheating. Except for the striking differences in their personalities and public image, however, the weight of evidence linking Bonds and Armstrong to P.E.D.’s was roughly equivalent. Both were the subject of well-researched books about alleged steroid use in the respective sports, though the Bonds book, Game of Shadows, was a best seller in the U.S., and the Armstrong book received far less notice. The only significant difference, perhaps, was that when Bonds denied that he used steroids (knowingly used, that is), few believed him.

Now disgraced cyclist Floyd Landis, who was stripped of his Tour de France title for steroid use and furiously denied the charges in public, in court, and in an angry book, has come forward with explosive allegations that Armstrong and other cyclers have used illegal and banned drugs to fuel their success. In the process, he finally admitting his own guilt. The comparison with Jose Canseco is inevitable. Canseco, a former baseball superstar slugger and admitted steroid user, set out to embarrass his former sport with a tell-all book that accused some of the game’s most admired figures of using P.E.D.’s. The press and his former colleagues called him every epithet imaginable, of which “liar” was probably the mildest. Canseco, like Landis, was certainly that, as well as a desperate, certifiable low-life with the ethics of scorpion. But all of his allegations have proven to be true.

Landis’s claims about Armstrong are a good bet to be proven true as well, if the cycling world and sports media will finally stop protecting their hero. Then all of us can begin the painful process of understanding why we treat different people so differently, and why double, triple and quadruple standards are so hard to avoid. The fact is that many of us wanted Barry Bonds to be guilty of cheating, because he was dislikable in ways that have nothing to do with steroids. And most of us wanted Lance Armstrong to be as good and trustworthy a guy as he seemed to be, so we went out of our ways to discount the same kind of evidence that we would have gladly used to attack Bonds.

It isn’t just that life is unfair. The problem is that it is surprisingly hard to make it fair when the tendency to bias and self-deception is such a prominent part of  human character. I think we’ve been fair to Barry Bonds, as he has continued to lie. Now it’s time to be fair to Lance Armstrong—and Bonds—by not closing our eyes to what is almost certainly the sad truth about another false hero.

7 thoughts on “Armstrong, Bonds, Steroids, and Bias

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Armstrong, Bonds, Steroids, and Bias « Ethics Alarms --

  2. Excellent commentary. But just to point out: Frankie also testified to Lance’s drug usage in Lance’s arbitration case against SCA Promotions.
    I could never understand why Lance would receive such different treatment than Barry Bonds. Some say it’s race (I say no way) and others say it’s cancer. As Phil Hersh said in his blog yesterday, “Lance Armstrong gets the cancer pass. It is the ultimate insect repellent.”

    And there you go.

    • Betsy: I think it’s many factors, Betsy. Bonds really has always been a glowering presence, while Lance is outwardly as close to a perfect public role model any sport could offer. I agree that the cancer factor is huge. Baseball has an obsession with statistics, so there is a sense that PED cheating has a permanent effect when it is done by a superstar, and thus there has been more anger about Bonds’ breaking of long-standing records from both fans and sportswriters. There’s year-round scrutiny on baseball, while cycling only occasionally breaks into the sports headlines here. Perhaps most of all, Bonds has few friends in the sport, so he has never had the wagons circled around him like Armstrong has. Is race part of it? Not much, if any—but the contrast in treatment, still looks bad. I think the degree to which the public and media turned against Roger Clemens once he was implicated in PEDs proved to my satisfaction that the key factor is image and perceptions of character, not race.

  3. I just wonder if in cycling, there are any champions who didn’t use PED’s. In baseball, you have a lot of people who used such drugs, but the vast majority probably didn’t. What if you have a sport where every major player did? Could this be a reason to shield Armstrong? He won so much, that if he was doping, would it destroy the sport? Would people just not watch follow cycling anymore if its greatest story was faked, if all of its champions cheated?

    • Indeed, I think its very likely that, at least before the recent effort to clean up the sport, doping was the norm. Cycling’s popularity took a serious hit with the PED scandals, and I do think that Armstrong’s exposure would hurt cycling more than Tiger Woods’ problems have hurt the PGA—and that’s a lot. So your theory is a sound one.

  4. The truth must be told and the chips fall where they may. To cover up such things- even for the sake of preserving a positive image for young people- only exacerbates the consequences of the inevitable revelation. All public figures must be held accountable to the most exacting standards of their field. And, if they falter, it is incumbent on they themselves to come forward and accept responsibility. The pressure to enhance one’s career beyond the natural limitations of age is no excuse. As any ethical professional athlete will tell you, “Know when to walk away”. In the rarified (and profitable!) sphere of professional sports, the inclination not to do so is tremendous. Yet, for the sake of the profession itself (which must take precedence over personal concerns) it must be done.

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