It seems yet again (and again) that we find ourselves scratching our heads about the lives of well-known athletes asking the question, “what happened?” Lance Armstrong has managed to anger people all over the world by his confession on Oprah Winfrey’s television network that he participated in a culture of deception using an host of performance enhancing drugs while winning seven Tour de France titles then followed that by several years of passionate denials. Armstrong admitted that he likely would not have won several Tour de France races in a row had he not cheated in some way. We are reminded that there is a culture of “doping” in the world of cycling so that cyclist can acquire that extra advantage that they were not given by nature. But are we surprised that there is cheating in the world of professional cycling? Are we really that surprised that someone, when challenged about their actions, would lie about them?
Lying and cheating are ancient vices that have plaqued the human family for centuries. What is more amazing is the moral outrage in an American culture that spurns religion from public life yet believes that there is some objective philosophical, moral, and dare I say, “spiritual,” basis from which to label Armstrong a “liar” and a “hypocrite.” Americans have been so desperate to purge religion from public life yet feel free embrace religious virtues about truth-telling when convenient. Perhaps what makes the Armstrong confession so devastating is that we continue to believe that sports participation builds character when it, in fact, does not. Participation in sport does not build character, it exposes it.
While some may say that Armstrong lied and cheated for the glorying of winning or the windfall profits to come with endorsements, and the like, it is possible that Armstrong’s cheating and lying were driven by shame. What if Lance Armstrong is a man who believes deep down, as Brene Brown argues, that he is a man who is unworthy of love and belonging and was willing to do anything to get obtain those things. If one’s sense of dignity and humanity is directly tied to one’s performance, and the things that one produces, then one’s moral compass will align itself accordingly. Shame is this sense that one is unworthy of love and belonging because of something that is inherently wrong with how one is made. Shame-driven people not only believe that they make mistakes, like we all do, but that they are mistakes.
What if the Armstrong problem is a different kind of moral problem. Yes, the cheating and lying are serious vices but what if Armstrong lied, cheated, pursued profits, fame, personal glory, and the like, in order to obtain love and belonging? What if he was willing to lie and cheat in order to pursue a dignity he believed he did not yet possess? One of the advantages of the Christian tradition is that love and belonging are both found in one’s relationship to the Holy Trinity and the church of Christ therefore one is free to live a life of virtue in the public square because one’s dignity is not derivative of what one achieves. Instead, in Christianity, one’s dignity is derived from what has been done for us by the Triune God. There is no shame in being made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-28) and having the opportunity to live a virtuous life accordingly. There is no shame in a life lived on the basis of gratitude.
In the end, what the Armstrong debacle reminds us is not only does sport participation not guarantee character but neither does a life, perhaps, that is characterized by the empty pursuit of love and belonging divorced from the Creator.