Saturday, September 1, 2012

Getting the 'W' without the win

Let’s begin with an important distinction about Lance Armstrong’s fight against doping charges: He did not merely quit that battle this week. He lost it.

On Monday, a federal judge dismissed Armstrong’s suit against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, clearing the way for the case the agency had built against him. On Thursday, in the face of public testimony from at least 10 eyewitnesses that included his closest teammates, Armstrong said he was tired.

This from the athlete who summoned unfathomable strength in the same hills of France that wilted his competitors. This from the man who vigorously trashed and threatened with litigation any author or athlete or agency who suggested his Tour de France victories were anything less than legitimate.

And now he’s tired? No. Armstrong is acknowledging that this time, he isn’t going to get the win.

That’s the thing about cheaters – getting the win, the “W,” is more important than actually winning.

For some, that’s almost understandable. Cheating can be transactional, a way to keep a paycheck coming. This month, Major League Baseball players Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon were suspended 50 games for taking performance enhancing drugs. Until recently, Cabrera was a mediocre hitter on the back half of his playing days, and Colon’s career had stalled because of age and weight. They decided to game the system pharmaceutically.

That’s how we euphemize dishonesty, sometimes: “Gaming the system.” It’s what the brokers and bankers did a decade ago when they began filling the housing market with toxic loans that took down the economy. At the time, it was good business, working at the edge of the rules – and occasionally over that edge. We like to celebrate things like that.

We also have terrific powers of rationalization when it comes to the W’s in our lives. We talk about getting what’s ours, and we applaud those who “beat the Man.” We condemn the college football program that’s cheating until that program is the one we cheer for. Then, of course, “everyone is doing it.”

A decade ago, a teacher in a Kansas high school gave F’s to a group of students caught cheating on an assignment. Parents were outraged – not at the students, but at the teacher. They harassed her with late-night phone calls and complained to the school board, which finally ordered her to take back the punishment.

Said one of the students: “It probably sounds twisted, but I would say that in this day and age, cheating is almost not wrong.”

Not as long as we can get the win.

This month, I wrote an item criticizing Barack Obama because he didn’t condemn a political ad implying that Mitt Romney contributed to a woman’s death from cancer. Readers emailed to remind me that Romney, too, was releasing factually iffy ads. One insisted that the offending pro-Obama ad was necessary, because a Romney presidency would bring great ills to the country.

And that’s worth a shameful accusation? “Whatever it takes,” he said.

So now we have Lance Armstrong, finally losing this week. The USADA wants to take his seven straight Tour de France titles from him. He may also see the inspiring work he’s done for cancer victims darkened by this official taint of doping.

Or maybe not. Armstrong, after all, is not that unusual. He got the “W” – even if he didn’t win. How much does that really matter anymore?