They Weren’t Who We Thought They Were

Interesting thought from ESPN’s Buster Olney yesterday:

The reputations of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro have taken huge hits because of their alleged or acknowledged links to performance-enhancing drugs.

Now evidence of drug use continues to mount against Lance Armstrong, one of the most beloved figures in American sports — with the latest story coming from Sports Illustrated this week.

The question: Should Armstrong be viewed in the same light as Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Palmeiro and other ballplayers linked to PEDs?

Of all the cases of the baseball players, Armstrong’s most resembles that of Clemens — in the face of a lot of evidence, Armstrong, like Clemens, has angrily denied use of performance-enhancing drugs, while attacking the credibility of his accusers. If Clemens and Armstrong have been lying, they are bald-faced, unrepentant lies.

And while Clemens has never had the warm and fuzzy image that Armstrong has, as the cyclist has helped lead the fight against cancer, the pitcher — like Armstrong — has done a whole lot of philanthropic work.

It’s a tough question.

******************

Before I talk about the Lance Armstrong vs. Roger Clemens question, I want to discuss Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers a little bit. This will make sense later. I think.

Favre and Rodgers had a rough start to the week on a personal level. For Favre, word spread that a masseuse named Stephanie Dusenberry became the fourth woman (by my count) to allege that Favre made inappropriate advances on her. No word from Favre on the allegations yet. Judging by my quick Google search, this story was picked up by various news outlets, but there’s not much in the way of opinion columns out there on the allegations.

Rodgers was caught in a flap after local television cameras caught him walking past an autograph-seeking cancer survivor named Jan Cavanaugh in the airport without even so much as looking at her. The story blew up over the span of a day and at least one prominent columnist, NBCSports.com’s Mike Florio, ripped Rodgers a new one for walking past her and praised Clay Matthews for taking the time to stop.

Sounds terrible…except that it was a big overreaction. Within a day, Cavanaugh appeared back on the local news and said she couldn’t believe how outrageously the scene had been blown out of proportion. Apparently the two were essentially on first name basis – Rodgers had signed things for her on multiple occasions, including just a week before, and simply didn’t see her. Rodgers probably could have nodded at the fans, but that seems like a small issue compared to the baby killer that Florio tried to make him out to be.* Cavanaugh was also holding a Clay Matthews jersey; that explained why Matthews graciously stopped.

* To his credit, Florio retracted his article a few days later. Columnists do this all the time, but I like that Florio had the courtesy to leave the article online. Most columnists would simply have tried to erase the article from existence and not bother admitting their mistake. Perhaps Florio knows more about Google Cache than most columnists, but I still like the move.

These stories are unrelated, but they came out at about the same time, so of course they are going to be compared. As everyone knows, Congress has mandated that Brett Favre be mentioned in every column about Aaron Rodgers. But these stories can tell us something about how we perceive sports personalities.

So why don’t columnists like Florio jump on the latest Favre allegations but quickly rip apart Rodgers? Simple – it just doesn’t fit with the persona that the media has for Favre. Favre is the good ol’ gunslinger from Mississippi. Chris Berman once said that “rooting for Brett Favre is like rooting for America.” Come on now, Chris, tell us what you really think.

The media did cover the Jenn Sterger allegations about two months after Deadspin first reported them. But there’s been at least three more women that have come forward since then that have received almost no media coverage. Poor Tiger Woods was on approximately 32 consecutive US Weekly magazine covers last year every time a random stripper made a claim that she slept with him, no matter how outrageous her allegations were. And yet Favre slips on by.

Tiger made the mistake of not cultivating an image. Sure, we knew he was on the Mike Douglas Show when he was two years old and that his dad pretty much bred him into a superhero golfer, but that’s pretty boring. The media needs something to sink its teeth into and it didn’t get that with Woods until his personal life fell apart. Now the image we have of Woods is a childish, perverted philanderer whose growth was stunted by an overbearing father. There’s at least a 99.99% chance that at least one of those words is false, but it’s still the image we have of him.

Favre did the smart thing – he took control of his image from the get-go. This is a guy who wrote two autobiographies before he turned 35. He cultivated an image as a red-blooded All-American tough boy who wrestled alligators, slung the ball 75 yards, and pulled childish pranks on teammates. All you need to know about his image is contained in the two video clips that are always shown of Favre – the boisterous young quarterback running downfield with his helmet in his hand after throwing a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XXXI and that of an old, gray guy gritting his teeth through consecutive start number 4,384. Forget about the stay in rehab for drug addiction and all the philandering rumors that were around way before Jenn Sterger came around; this is his image and the media has stuck to it.

That brings us back to Rodgers. It’s fair to say that Rodgers is firmly in the Woods camp. We know he has a good sense of humor from his press conferences, but little else about him. He has dated the lead singer from Lady Antebellum and is currently dating an actress from Gossip Girl, but strangely the media hasn’t really cared.

Every famous quarterback has a story: Favre, the tough ol’ country boy; Brady, the celebrity playboy; Manning, the aw-shucks goofball; Brees, the post-Hurricane Katrina savior; Roethlisberger, the rapist; and Vick the dog murderer trying to find redemption. Rodgers’ performance against Atlanta pushed him up among the top quarterbacks in the league, if he wasn’t there already.

But his story has not been written yet. That’s why a national columnist like Florio immediately jumped on a two second camera clip that didn’t even tell anything resembling a full story. Don’t worry, his story will be written soon, maybe even within the next three weeks if the Packers win the Super Bowl. Poor Florio just got overexcited and jumped the gun.

*******************

So now back to Buster Olney’s Roger Clemens vs. Lance Armstrong question. Like many analysts, Olney focuses on each athlete’s use of steroids. Whether each athlete actually used steroids is irrelevant. The more important question is whether each athlete’s alleged steroid use fits in with our preconceived notions of said athlete.

Evidence seems to be stacked pretty heavily against both Clemens and Armstrong. Of course, there’s really no way to 100% prove that either one of them used steroids. Evidence may pile up, but as long as some obscure video evidence pops up from however many years ago, they can go on angrily denying steroid usage for as long as they want. But it doesn’t matter all that much. We and the media have already made up our minds on Clemens and Armstrong. We will go on thinking what we want to think about their alleged steroid use, and whether or not they actually used steroids will be irrelevent.

I think Olney hit the nail on the head with his second-to-last sentence: “Clemens has never had the warm and fuzzy image that Armstrong has, as the cyclist has helped lead the fight against cancer, the pitcher — like Armstrong — has done a whole lot of philanthropic work.”

Lance Armstrong is as close to an American hero as we have in the sports world. Because of Armstrong, 95% of Americans can name at least one professional cyclist, but less than 3% can name two. He is a four-time AP Athlete of the Year. He won a record-shattering seven consecutive Tour de Frances with only one testicle after his dramatic recovery from cancer. He is single-handedly responsible for the still-going-strong bracelet craze for every major cause. His own Livestrong foundation has raised $325 million to fight cancer.

His main accuser, Floyd Landis, is the antithesis of Armstrong. Landis won the 2006 Tour de France and immediately tested positive for doping afterwards. He proclaimed his innocence for several years and appealed to his supporters to raise over $1 million in legal fees in the “Floyd Fairness Fund” so he could fight his unjust cycling ban. It all turned out to be a George Costanza-like ruse. Landis admitted in 2010 that he doped all along. Also, he didn’t want to go down alone – he wanted to take down every other cyclist, including Armstrong, with him. In the last five sentences alone, he flagrantly violated pretty much every single American value. He is even a squirrelly, guilty-looking dude compared to Armstrong’s East Texan charm and good looks.

On the other hand, we have Roger Clemens. As a pitcher, Clemens dominated when he wanted to and stopped trying when he felt like it. He left his first team, the Boston Red Sox, on terms so bad that he still needs a large security crew just to enter Boston. In his later years, he earned a reputation as a diva and retired and un-retired more times than Brett Favre. Over his last two seasons, he showed up in July and worked out deals worth $12 million and $19 million for three months of work. Clemens’ version of three months of work consisted of pitching every five days and flying home on the team’s dime between starts. Also, he was famously accused of carrying on an out-of-wedlock sexual relationship with a 15-year old country singer. If you asked baseball fans to use one word to describe Clemens, it would probably rhyme with “bassbowl.”

Clemens’ main accuser is former trainer Brian McNamee. McNamee is not a likable guy either. Like Landis, he seems to be willing to sell out whomever for personal gain. However, his most important contribution to Clemens’ case speaks volumes about Clemens. McNamee kept the needles that he used to allegedly inject Clemens for eight years until turning them over to authorities in 2008. Maybe McNamee was always after blackmail material, but to most observers, the question was: how big of a jerk does Clemens have to be that his own personal trainer kept disgusting evidence against him for eight years? That’s not exactly something you do to someone you get along with or even respect in the slightest.

In sum: Armstrong could get busted co-running a massive sweat shop in Vietnam with a Mexican drug overlord, and he would still be loved by the majority of the American people. I could start a rumor right now that Clemens hunts kittens for his sport and most people would say “that sounds like something he’d do.”

We see this all the time in baseball. Everyone thinks Barry Bonds is guilty of knowingly using steroids because he has a reputation as a jerk. On the other hand, Andy Pettitte actually admitted to using HGH and fans forget about it because he has a reputation as a nice guy.

Rafael Palmeiro was raked over the coals for testing positive for steroids because he fell into that Tiger Woods category. Palmeiro was part of a long line of nondescript very good, but not great first basemen of the early 1990s that included Will Clark, Mark Grace, Fred McGriff, Don Mattingly, and Andrés Galarraga. All we really knew about Palmeiro was that he emphatically denied using steroids at a Congressional hearing. When he tested positive for steroids, that was it for his reputation.

Now are all these stories about Armstrong and Clemens actually true? I have no idea, but it’s still the public perception. As far as these doping cases are concerned, that’s all that matters. Like Favre, Armstrong and Clemens’ stories have already been written. People will presume that Armstrong is innocent and Clemens is guilty, for no other reason that we like Armstrong and dislike Clemens.

Is this fair? Maybe not. But that’s just the way it is.

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One Response to They Weren’t Who We Thought They Were

  1. jhg says:

    Great column. Coupla points:

    Off the top of my head: Armstrong, Landis, Induran, LeMond.

    I always assumed that Armstrong took steroids because every other cyclist is taking steroids and HE’S BEATING THEM.

    How could you not make a Lewinski/McNamee comparison?

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