It’s a lesson we’re taught from a very early age: win. Just win, baby, win at all costs. Sacrifice what you need to, do what you have to, in order to emerge victorious. It doesn’t matter how. Or why. The only thing that matters is the W. If there’s a central tenet to The American Way today, that’s sadly the very thing that has defined us, molded our character and served as the central lesson of our history. In the aftermath of the dream that hard work and good choices makes for a satisfying life, we have this: lie, cheat and connive your way to more than what you deserve.
Lance Armstrong and his sad, sorry tale of cheating just to “win at all costs” is simply the latest and most grotesque version of a weary story: celebrity/athlete/leader/politician/businessman cheats his or her way to the top, then crashes down amid garbage piles of lies. Lance is not unique, but rather sadly common and really not even among the best of the cheaters. When you consider the avarice of Wall St., in leading the world into the Great Recession, Lance comes off as a blood-doping cycle clown in a tight yellow shirt. When you weigh the haunted choices of the late Joe Paterno and the Penn State hierarchy in allow Jerry Sandusky to continue his abuse, Armstrong is just another greedy athlete.
We’ve got plenty of those. And despite the penalties and the public humiliation, somehow it never changes. The mentality is so deeply engrained into our psyche, from Lombardi to Belichek, that anything other than “all costs” isn’t really an option. Indeed, as a girl’s recreational league soccer coach, I have seen that win or else attitude played out time and again on Saturday afternoons. There are coaches who stash their less-talented players on the bench, or on outposts in the field where they get no chance to learn the game or even simply enjoy the experience. All so that a rec team can win a game.
That’s as wrong as Lance injecting calf’s blood. No matter what level, there’s no honor in winning if you have to cheat to do so. Values like integrity don’t change just because everyone else is also cheating. Integrity, in fact, exists for exactly that reason. If you compete honestly you will always hold your head up, stand straight and look people in the eye. If you cheat, you deserve to hang your head in shame and slink along the back fence perimeter like a coyote on trash night. And if you lie about it for years afterward, you ought to be stripped of your glory, your fame and your wealth.
We can do better than that. We can be better than that. We can pick better heroes.
There is no prize too great for a person who wins with integrity, who strives to be better through honest labor and effort. And there is no punishment too severe for a person who cheats to be something he or she can never be, no matter how fast or strong or smart. Winners are not carved that way.