Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Who IS That Masked Man?

"It's insane to think that the fastest woman in the world has served time for lying about doping, or that the greatest home run hitter of all time will be sentenced on a similar charge in June and the most dominant pitcher of his era is about to go on trial for not telling Congress the truth. It's getting so hard to believe what we see is real anymore from our uber–humans."

Mike Wise
Washington Post
May 24, 2011

Greg Couch of The Sporting News wrote a thought–provoking piece the other day.

He suggested that cyclist Lance Armstrong's fall from grace over the now apparently credible doping allegations that he has blithely dismissed in the past will be greater than Barry Bonds' — primarily because Bonds, who has never been a fan favorite, didn't have far to fall while Armstrong, adored by millions, did.

Couch wrote on the assumption that the allegations against Armstrong are true — and perhaps they are.

Personally, I have never been an advocate of assumption. Sure, we all do it — to a degree — from time to time. We can't help it. We're human, and we form opinions based on the information we have. That information may be nothing more than speculation, but it is what it is and we reach conclusions based on it.

But I am a journalist, and I have found that journalists tend to be particularly sensitive to how words in their articles may be perceived.

(They can be incredibly casual about the language they use in their daily lives — and astonishingly naive about its ramifications — but most of the journalists I have known would bend over backwards before allowing anything that smacked of opinion to invade their work — unless, of course, they were writing an opinion column.)

As a journalism student and then as a practicing journalist, I was constantly told, by my instructors and my editors, to be as neutral as possible in the language I used.

This was especially important, I was told, when dealing with legal proceedings.

If someone was on trial, I was told, nothing I wrote should suggest, in any way, that he/she already had been found guilty. Until a verdict was handed down, the defendant was accused or alleged.

And even if that person was convicted, future articles should only say that he/she was a convicted murderer or a convicted arsonist or whatever. To simply say he/she was a murderer or an arsonist implied, however slightly, that the author of the article believed the correct verdict had been reached.

And juries, as everyone knew, could be wrong.

"Convicted," as I understood it, placed the onus on someone else. I didn't have to label him or her a murderer or an arsonist. A jury had already done that.

Now, make no mistake. I like Armstrong better than Bonds. Much better. And most sports fans I know would agree with that.

(Well, perhaps not the ones I know who live in San Francisco or Pittsburgh. But that is a really small subgroup of my friends.)

I am not — and never have been — a fan of cycling. Neither am I a huge baseball fan. I used to follow it closely when I was a boy. My interest has waned as an adult, but I still follow it.

But my feelings about Armstrong and Bonds transcend their sports. I like or dislike each based on the kind of person I think he is.

And Couch's column simply emphasizes an important distinction — in my mind, at least.

Bonds' conviction merely confirmed the kind of person I always believed him to be.

The allegations against Armstrong — and the journalist in me insists on pointing out, once again, that these are simply allegations, nothing has been proven — are troubling because they are at odds with the kind of person I believed Armstrong to be.

And that has made me think about sports heroes.

Bonds and Armstrong kind of represent the bad cop, good cop of sports, and most sports heroes seem to line up behind one or the other.

The bad guys in sports — the ones whose transgressions came as no real surprise to me — were guys like Pete Rose, Mike Tyson, Jose Canseco.

I probably wouldn't have made the cut for the Bonds jury. I would have had to admit that I never liked him, and I was suspicious of how quickly he bulked up. It wasn't much of a leap for me to believe the worst about him.

Armstrong is at the other extreme — the good guy, the selfless one, the cancer survivor trying to give back. The ones who whispered about him were jealous, we were told, or they were about to publish some tell–all book and were looking for publicity.

That, too, was easy to believe because Armstrong seemed like a genuinely good guy. But so did Roger Clemens — and (to me, anyway) Mark McGwire.

And that makes me wonder about some of the other guys who have been heroic figures in sports in the last 10–15 years.

Lebron James has already (in my opinion) proven himself to be a narcissist. Likewise, Kobe Bryant.

The ones who have raised eyebrows were the ones who were thought to be the all–American types — guys like Tiger Woods, who apparently cheated on his wife (many times), and Brett Favre, who didn't do anything illegal, just wore everybody down until even he could no longer rationalize returning to football.

Sports fans have to wonder who they can believe anymore.

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