Saturday, January 19, 2013

Rooting for Sinners to be Winners

In my life I have rooted for a lot of sinners.  There was OJ Simpson when I was at USC with him, and Reggie Bush long after I'd graduated.  As a cyclist and cycling fan, I rooted for Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie, Dave Zabriskie, that whole gang of doping cyclists.  I never mistook any of them for saints, not even when Reggie Bush became a New Orleans "Saint".  Rooting for athletes is not about thinking they are great examples of moral character.  Usually, it's just because they play for "my team."  Not to classify them with the cheaters, I also root for my children and grandchildren, because they're "my team" too.

Another thing that makes us root for an athlete is that we tend to love a good comeback story, whether it's a comeback from adversity, from injury, from retirement, from cancer, or even from disgrace.  The idea that someone can overcome the obstacles in life gives us hope.  When my wife got cancer and was feeling down about the future, I could say, well, look Lance Armstrong had cancer and he came back to win the Tour de France, so you better start riding your bike so you can too.  Yeah, OK, I got that this was over-optimistic, and yeah, I get that Armstrong cheated to do it, but still, he demonstrated that cancer  is not the end of your life.  That it turns out he cheated doesn't really change that.  It still shows that a cancer survivor can have a great future.  My daughter made her own comebacks from lots of adversity and mistakes of several sorts, which made me root for her all the more.  When Bush and Matt Leinhart (yet another sinner) were 4th down and 9 yards to go on their own 26 with 1:32 left in the game against Notre Dame, and they came back to win against all odds, did they cheat on the "Bush Push" play to score the touchdown?  Probably.  So two sinners colluded to cheat and win, but regardless, that comeback victory (at least from my side of the field) was an inspiring story of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat - of never giving up no matter how bad things looked.  Sinners can be winners too.

I also rooted for other cyclists, who may or may not be "clean" and about whose "saintliness" I know nothing.  I rooted for Greg LeMond.  He claims he alone of all cyclists of the era was the one clean one.  Maybe.  Don't know.  Even if true about that, I don't think he's any saint nor would he claim to be one.  I rooted for Thomas Voeckler and Oscar Pereiro.  Unless you are a cycling fan, you probably don't know who those are, but the inspiring thing about them was their come from behind underdog wins, and their perseverance even when they really could not win. Are they saints?  Doubtful.  Just athletes.  Don't confuse the two.  I rooted for LeMond and Armstrong in part because they popularized "my sport" in this country, which had previously been virtually ignored.  It may now go back to being ignored, which would be sad.  I hope the Amgen Tour of California survives doping.  Lance Armstrong could certainly endorse Amgen's EPO.  Worked for him.

On the other hand, I'm not a great fan of Tim Tebow:  Partly of course because he didn't play for my teams, but also, I think the whole religious athlete thing tends to turn me off just a little.  Maybe it's because it seems too much like a claim to be a saint, and that's somewhere I don't want to go with rooting for athletes.  I don't want to confuse success in athletics as in any way connected with religion.  It's just games.  And let's face it:  John Wooden is not really adored, almost deified at UCLA, because of his moral character:  It's because he won a lot of games.  He may or may not have been a saint, doesn't matter.  He won games for the home team.  While I can find meaning and lessons in athletics  I don't want to confuse morals and religion with athletic success.  Being truly great in anything requires a single minded, exclusive dedication to that pursuit, indeed a "win at all costs" dedication.  Great athletes are just great athletes, not great anything else's.  I don't expect anything else from them.

The other thing about "saints" is, they are just faulty people too.  We are all faulty.  Some may be "less bad" than others, but we are all bad.  Everyone, even saints, will lie to protect themselves, Saint Peter being the obvious example.  Perhaps only Jesus would have forgiven Peter, but only Jesus would have been moral enough not to tell the same lies.  We are all sinners.  There was a "Science File" article in the Los Angeles Times this morning entitled "Like Him, We Are All Liars" (i.e. Like Armstrong).  Sounded more like a sermon title than a science file, but true either way.  Everyone lies.  To say someone is "a liar" is simply to say that they are human: Humans are liars;  All of us.  Even dogs lie (no, no, I wasn't up on that couch, really I wasn't).

This is not a defense of Lance Armstrong.  I never met the guy, and might not like him much as a person if I did know him personally.  He cheated.  He cheated for a long, long time.  From what I hear, he is a rather prickly character (and many might shorten that word).  He rode roughly over a lot of people to keep cheating.  The cheating of Armstrong and others like him have almost destroyed professional cycling.  I'm not actually sure if it can ever come back. Doping cyclists have made cycling seem more like professional wrestling than a real sport.  I can't feel sorry for a multi-millionaire who cheated to get his money.  I don't feel sorry for him at all.  I can sympathize with his predicament, and feel grateful that I never had to confess my sins in front of the world like that, but no, he doesn't even defend his own actions, nor do I.

On the other hand, in baseball, there are admitted drug cheaters on the Hall of Fame ballot.  Football just has to be filled with and fueled by steroids.  In cycling, lots of cyclists got caught cheating, denied it, defended against the accusations, never admitted it or gave evidence against co-conspirators, got two year bans and are back in the sport, so the difference with Armstrong seems to be simply that he was more successful.  Sports have avoided doing a lot of obvious things to clean up the doping problems.  Cycling has actually done more than most sports, but all sports seem to have resisted going beyond their blood and urine testing program which has proven to be worse than useless. The drug testing program appears to be more a shield for cheaters (like Armstrong), who usually don't get caught by it, than a deterrent.  There's more than enough blame to go around.  One could get the impression that most sports authorities would rather not know.  They know how useless their anti-doping programs are, but they don't do much to fix the problem.  The prosecutors and accusers are often as bad in various ways as the cheaters.   None of that excuses Armstrong, and he says that too, but my feelings are often complicated by actually liking some of the cheaters (from my distant televised viewpoint) more than I like some of the accusers.  I think that's because I'm loyal to the sinners I've rooted for.

Would I like to see Armstrong compete again? Yes I would.  Partly because I'd like to see how he can do when really clean.  I get that he himself screwed up his chance to show his ability to complete clean.  It's one of the things he cheated himself out of, but I'm still curious.  Perhaps we saw the answer already in his 2009 and 2010 "comeback," but we don't know, either about Armstrong, or about his competition, and it would be interesting to know that.  What would it mean?  Not much, but it would be fun to watch.   Would I root for him again?  Yes I would. In fact, I'd root for that whole list of sinners and dopers again.  They're my team.  I'm not a "fair weather fan."  I've "bonded" with them.  I don't dump them just because they aren't perfect, any more than I'd quit rooting for my family if they went astray.  It's not about "believing in" an athlete.  Often, their exposed flaws just make them seem more human and sympathetic. Everyone needs redemption.

The thing about rooting for sinners and liking a comeback and redemption is that those are things we all need.  I root for sinners because I am one.  I root for comebacks because I hope for them for myself and my family.  I root for people who have been caught in lies because that could be me.  I root for people who have made mistakes because I've made lots of them.  I root for flawed people in need of redemption because I can identify with them.  I have to believe that sinners can be winners too.