Buzz Bissinger’s Primer on Unethical Reasoning

Sportswriter Buzz Bissinger, already an Ethics Dunce in good standing, has contributed something immensely valuable to the world of ethics: a cover story for Newsweek that can serve as a teaching aid in college ethics classes.

Titled “I Still Believe in Lance Armstrong,” Bissinger lurches from one rationalization to another, contradicting himself repeatedly along the way. This is a professional journalist, writing in his field, for what once was a respected news commentary magazine. Why is so much of the public unable to tell right from wrong? Because they spend a lifetime reading junk like this: Bissinger’s essay could be Exhibit A.

Bissinger begins by talking about the reactions of his son, a cycling enthusiast who worshiped Armstrong, to the recent news that the tarnished athlete would no longer challenge the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s efforts to strip him of his titles:

“Caleb is not blind. He said it was hard not to read the statement and conclude that when Armstrong said, ‘There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say ‘Enough is enough’ ” and that he was finished fighting the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s fanatical attempt to strip him of his victories, what lay below the outrage was an admission that he may well have cheated with performance enhancers in order to win. That bothers my son. It is why he called the stunning announcement a ‘sad day.’ But it is also why he called it a ‘weird day’ emotionally because of the constant effort to make Armstrong into a villain.”

Bissinger has slipped in a logical and ethical impossibility here, acknowledging that Armstrong “may well have cheated” but suggesting that the effort to make him into a villain is unfair and unreasonable. He is asserting as a core assumption of his essay that an athlete cheating to win championships isn’t “a villain,” and not only that, it is unreasonable to suggest that he is one. Bissinger has declared cheating ethically ambiguous, and it is not. It is absolutely wrong, and a competitor who succeeds through cheating is, in the context of sport, a villain indeed. Then Buzz quotes Caleb, which presumes that his son said something worth quoting:

“I think this has been a witch hunt for years,” he said. “There’s clearly been this attempt since day one to take down this hero. Despite the fact he may have had some aid, at the end of the day what he did is pretty amazing.”

Bissinger  this wrote that he and his son recognize that Armstrong may have been, indeed likely was, cheating. How, then, could efforts to prove he was cheating constitute a “witch hunt”?  There were no real witches when witch hunts occurred: the implication and innuendo is false, inaccurate and misleading. A witch hunt is when an authority seeks to find wrongdoing where there was none and could not have been any. Yet according to the article, it was this statement by his son that convinced Bissinger that Armstrong is not “yet another fallen sports idol.”

What follows is a recitation by Bissinger of the impressive work of Armstrong’s foundation. This is a pure example of “The King’s Pass,” the rationalization that bad acts can and should be forgiven when the actor is a Big Cheese—powerful, accomplished, famous. successful. The logic of this rationalization is exactly backwards. Unethical conduct is far more damaging when the individual engaging in it is admired and powerful; it makes them into ethics corrupters. And Bissinger is corrupted himself, for he announces that he just refuses to believe that Armstrong is guilty—because of his son’s nonsense about a witch hunt?–and anyway, “even if he did take enhancers, so what?”

So what?

Even if the most famous and successful cyclist in the world, who has built an international following and acquired millions of dollars based on his supposed sportsmanship, athletic skills and success, cheated to attain all this, and has lied repeatedly—to the press, to his fans and admirers—about his innocence of doping, so what?  Cheating doesn’t matter, lying doesn’t matter! How does Bissinger justify such a position?

The old fashioned way, of course: rationalizing. He gives us…

  • The Saint’s Excuse:It’s for a good cause.“He is a hero, one of the few we have left in a country virtually bereft of them,” Bissinger writes. “And he needs to remain one.” Because we need heroes, we should keep a liar and cheater on that pedestal. Because we need heroes, we should call someone a hero who is clearly the opposite of one.
  • The Golden Rationalization:Everybody does it.” Bissinger writes, “Doping has been a rite of passage in the Tour de France. According to The New York Times, at least a third of the top 10 finishers (Armstrong included) have either officially admitted to using performance enhancers or been officially suspected of doping.” So in this sport, cheating is OK, and a cheater is still a hero! This is ethics rot at its most prolific.
  • Tit for Tat: “He started it!” This is the theory that someone else violating an ethical principle waives that principle so you can “get even.” It is a ticket to take a toboggan ride down the slippery slope. Bissinger: “If Armstrong used banned substances, he was leveling the playing field. He was still the one who overcame all odds.” That’s right–he just had to cheat. Just like the Romney and Obama campaigns have to practice dirty politics.
  • Ethics Accounting: “I’ve  earned this!”  Bissinger recounts the familiar story of Armstrong’s triumph over cancer, as if this undeniably courageous episode deposited enough in the Ethics Bank to allow him to cheat and lie without forfeiting hero status.

No.

  • The “Innocent until proven guilty” Fallacy. This is especially funny to see in Armstrong’s case, after he announced that he would no longer try to make the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency prove him guilty in a court of law, which is the only setting in which “innocent until proven guilty” is relevant. Though not a rationalization so much as a deceitful argument, the approach is adopted by Bissinger, like all of Armstrong’s defenders, to gloss over the fact that the circumstantial evidence against Armstrong, including at least ten witnesses (recently expanded to include his ex-girl friend and and his personal assistant), is impossible to explain away.
  • Miscreant Paranoia: “They’re Out To Get Me!” This is so pathetic that I’ve never included it in my list of rationalizations. It serves the purpose of deflection, blame-shifting, and also is consistent with the “witch hunt” accusation. Bissinger also is employing “The Favorite Child Excuse,” essentially arguing that Armstrong is being punished for something that others are allowed to get away with: “What point is being served here besides the USADA’s own desperation to prove to the public that it is cleaning up sports? It’s a slam job, and Armstrong is the victim of that slam. It has been that way for 13 years, an almost pathological desire by a select group of haters to bring him down—either out of jealousy or a determination to make a name for themselves. If he was the only one in cycling suspected of doping, then by all means tar and feather him. But he is not. Not even close. He is a target, the biggest target there is, the perfect symbol for the USADA to prove its existence.” Fine. Did he cheat, Buzz? That’s all that matters.

Oh, there’s more. For example, Bissinger stoops to what I call “The Actor’s Retort,” which is the last, desperate cry of the skewered performer in an attempt to delegitimize  a critic. I saw Chevy Chase try this tactic on Siskel and Ebert, when he happened to be on a talk show couch as the two movie critics savaged his comedy “The Three Amigos.” “How many successful movie comedies have you guys made?,” Chevy sneered. Similarly Buzz, after quoting the chief executive of the USADA, ended his essay by writing,

“…Perhaps Travis Tygart, before trying to destroy Lance Armstrong for his own job security, should get his ass out of the chair in his office and try [cycle racing] himself. Even if he doped, he wouldn’t last a mile.”

And if Tygart failed without cheating, I’d still admire him more than I do Lance Armstrong, Buzz.

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Source: The Daily Beast

Graphic: The Atlantic Wire

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Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

8 thoughts on “Buzz Bissinger’s Primer on Unethical Reasoning

    • It’s the same evidence that has been against him multiple times in the past, and has not been enough to convict him by any sporting body. Basically, people claim Lance doped. Most of these claims came after the individuals themselves failed doping tests. Lance never failed a test.

      The “enough is enough” is like an insurance company saying: “I’m tired of wasting my money fighting this stupid suit. I’m just going to settle”… but throw in that the suit has already been dismissed a half dozen times for lack of evidence.

      • It’s a bit more than that. The issue with Lance has also been masking agents and blood doping, which is hard to catch, as well as steroids. Like Barry Bonds, his arc of success is outside normal aging norms, and he has so many ties with some of the testing entities that this itself raises legitimate suspicion. He is also in a sport, like bodybuilding, where virtually all champions dope, so the fact that he is a multiple champion ads to the circumstantial evidence. Now his assistant has come forward-–the odds of all of these people, team mates, lovers and employees, lying to get Lance stretches credulity and probability.

      • tgt, that is not correct.
        The evidence against Lance is far more than it has been in the past. It has been mounting increasingly for years.
        It includes 3 of his teammates and friends, including his closest companion on the Tour, who were NEVER accused of doping and have no sinister reason to come clean.
        Also, there is chemical evidence that he masked the substances in his blood.
        This is the mountain of evidence that Lance couldn’t have possibly addressed in public without being exposed as obviously guilty. It’s not just Lance the USADA is going after, it’s also a team doctor, trainer, and others. Lance is just the only one anyone cares about.
        Basically the US Postal Service Team conspired to cheat to win. They gained a clear advantage (most cyclists probably didn’t cheat, as rampant as it was), and it was a group effort. It’s comical at this point to assume that Lance beat other, younger cheaters while never cheating himself as his personal trainers, doctors, and teammates all conspired to cheat their way through drug tests all around him.

        The only real drama left is whether Lance is going to keep throwing his teammates under the bus and call them liars, now that even the most squeaky-clean of them has come forward. It looks as if Lance is going to be the only one left without a clear conscience.

        • You know what, I remember hearing the same general argument over each of the last 2 of Armstrong’s persecutions. It was supposedly unquestionably clear that Armstrong cheated, but it couldn’t be proven, even by the low bar set for cycling allegations. The sports governing bodies have cried wolf on Armstrong so much, that there is probably no new evidence that I would actually believe was conclusory. More importantly, I find the repeated prosecutions for the same crime to be beyond the pale ethically.

          I’m not saying Armstrong is clean or that cheating in sports is okay. What I’m saying is that the “enough is enough” comment does not mean that Armstrong has admitted to cheating.

          • I agree that he hasn’t admitted to cheating. His entire withdrawal from the investigation process made it possible for him to continue to not admit to cheating.
            He doesn’t have any reason to admit to cheating, in regards to his money, reputation, and ego. He has plenty of ethical reasons to admit to cheating, though.
            George Hincapie is Armstong’s best bud in cycling, always defended him, and NEVER was fingered for cheating. Hincapie was not a witness against Lance before. If Hincapie says that he, Lance, and the whole team conspired to cheat, then it’s true. The only reason he confessed to Lance’s misdeeds (and his own) was that he was placed under oath, and he has a conscience.

  1. Thanks for breaking it out for me Jack. I saw it on the newsstand and I didn’t want to plow all the way through it. If this is how he analyzes, I’ll have to place an asterisk on “Three Nights in August,” his 2005 breakdown of the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry, via Tony La Russa (who was completely unaware of drug use on his team). BTW, the public is supporting Armstrong 3-1 on the latest poll I saw.

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