Far afield: A Prescription for Lance Armstrong

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Jason Kelly

Leaked details suggest Lance Armstrong’s visit to television’s vessel of forgiveness was predictable, the first tactical maneuver in his image-rehabilitation strategy. Something like, “I used performance-enhancing drugs. I lied about it. I am deeply sorry to all the people I hurt with my deception…” Contrition, tears, cooperation with authorities, etc., etc.

And he should be sorry, particularly to the people he slandered to protect his good name and to the millions of credulous true believers who took him at his defiant word. As for the doping, in and of itself? I’m one of the few people on earth who doesn’t think Armstrong needs to apologize for that.

The revoked Tour de France titles, the looming criminal prosecution and the toppled statue of his reputation serve as fair punishment for the rules and laws he broke. But while he faces that public comeuppance, I’d like to see him turn his famous tenacity toward repealing those rules and laws.

Not for himself — he knew what he was doing and deserves his fate — but to prevent more athletes from being ostracized or prosecuted over arbitrary restrictions on substances less risky than what football players subject themselves to on every down. As long as we applaud the brain-jostling impact of football, banning performance-enhancing drugs amounts to an olive embargo to prevent martini drinking.

If Armstrong has any credibility left, it’s on the subject of performance-enhancing drugs and their place in sports, a discussion belated by about two decades of willful ignorance and knee-jerk outrage. After the confession and the apology, I wish he would start the conversation.

I wish he would say it’s not clear that these substances merit prohibition at all, let alone the righteous indignation they inspire.

I wish he would quote University of Wisconsin pediatrician and bioethicist Norman Fost, who calls the arguments for prohibiting performance-enhancing drug use among adults “incoherent, disingenuous, hypocritical, and based on bad facts.”

I wish he would say that, properly administered, the side effects of these drugs are minimal — and probably a lot safer than the amphetamine-laced coffee that was a baseball staple in the sepia-toned decades that stir nostalgia for nonexistent innocence.

I wish he would say that our professed concern for the health of athletes ought to focus on football’s body count and the images of young men’s brains ravaged by CTE more than the side effects of EPO.

None of that will happen. Instead, the Super Bowl will attract a couple billion eyeballs, averted from the inevitable damage but not from the game that causes it, while Armstrong does the celebrity-penance cycle and the baseball hall of fame enshrines no one.

Wisconsin’s Fost has long been a lonely voice scoffing at the selective paternalism of performance-enhancing drug prohibition and the insufficient data supporting it. “We allow adults to do things that are far riskier than even the most extreme claims about steroids, such as race car driving, and even playing football,” he writes. “There are far more deaths reported from the sport itself than from steroids.”

Those assertions waft away without a hearing, drowned out by the hysteria on the other side. But the issue deserves a fair debate, fact for fact, and Armstrong has the profile to make that possible.

He has forfeited a lot of the sympathy he received as a cancer survivor — a triumph, not incidentally, attributable to potent drugs with serious side effects — but he still has a platform. Armstrong could be the bullhorn someone like Fost needs to be heard. Entrenched attitudes are difficult to fight, but he’s nothing if not a fighter, and this time he’d have the facts on his side.

The biggest risks of performance-enhancing drugs stem from misuse, which prohibition encourages. Football, on the other hand, poses dangers that compound with every legal collision. Hits don’t have to cause concussions to cause long-term damage, but the biggest ones draw the biggest cheers. And the impressionable children so often cited by drug scolds emulate that behavior, with adult encouragement, long before they’ve ever heard of steroids.

In arguing these points, Armstrong could recast himself — and the many teammates and competitors who have his vindictive tire treads across their backs — in the context of the larger health threats that athletes, fans, and leagues not only accept, but expect.

He will never erase the stigma of his seven revoked Tour de France titles, but Armstrong could become an important figure in sports again, leading a debate even more overdue than his confession.

Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at jasonkelly545@gmail.com.