RAY SUAREZ: Some thoughts now about the fallout of the Lance Armstrong story and those of other athletes whose reputations have been tarnished in this modern era.
Christine Brennan is a sportswriter and columnist for USA Today and ABC News. She’s covered Armstrong, Marion Jones, and the rise of performance-enhancing drugs in sports.
And, as we noted, Christine, this story is not the first, probably not the last. What’s different about the Armstrong saga?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: Ray, I think what’s different is that Lance Armstrong has long ago left the sports sphere, the realm of sports and moved on to a much higher plane in terms of his role in the cancer community as an icon, a cause, someone that people looked up to.
Millions of cancer survivors, their family members, those fighting cancer have looked up to him. So, he is much more than just another athlete, even another famous athlete. He is — he has transcended of sports. And that’s why I think he is so much more important than any other professional athlete we’re talking about here, and also why his fall is such a dramatic one.
RAY SUAREZ: Even though he competed in a sport that’s not followed by most Americans, the way baseball, football, other competitive sports are?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Absolutely.
But his success on his bike and the seven Tour de France titles, I think that’s obviously what was compelling.
So, even though it’s not a sport that Americans care about, except a couple weeks every year, for those couple weeks, he was such a compelling story, but also made because he was a cancer survivor.
RAY SUAREZ: So, the bike, the cancer activism, once you take away the achievements on the bike, the cancer activism falls apart, or does it give him something to hold on to?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Now, I think it’s in trouble.
There are stories we’re seeing on the wires of people who donated to the LIVESTRONG Foundation saying they want their money back. Right now, it’s just a trickle. But will there be more? Will there be lawsuits, civil suits, what have you?
I think Lance is — he was the Tour de France. Without — yes, he’s the cancer icon, of course. And he’s done great things, which makes this such a tragedy. But at the core, without the bike, without the victories, he’s just another person talking about cancer. So that’s what makes it so devastating, the fact that now he is seen as one of the worst liars and cheats probably ever in sports and maybe ever in our culture.
It’s that big of a deal. Then, obviously, everything else is called into question.
RAY SUAREZ: What about other kinds of embarrassment, disgrace, the taking away of titles that we have seen with other athletes? Some of them find a way to crawl back into the public’s good graces. Some of them don’t.
How do we distinguish between those stories?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Certainly, it helps to still be playing your sport. So, Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, Kobe Bryant, all those names, they all had the opportunity to come back on the field to play and have that second act that Americans, especially American sports fans, love to see so much.
Lance Armstrong, 41 years old, not only has he retired because of his age, but he’s now banned — because of his actions, of course — banned from ever competing again in any sanctioned sport. So he’s lost cycling, but he was going to do triathlons. I don’t think he would have been the world’s best triathlete. I don’t — he would have been far from it.
But the reality is, he will never have that opportunity because he’s banned from competing. So that story of coming back, that story of redemption on the field of play, that is not available to Lance Armstrong.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there also a difference depending on how you were regarded before you ran into your problems, whether it’s charges that stuck, charges that didn’t stick? Before your disgrace, if people thought you were a good guy, do you have more of a shot than otherwise?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: I think so. For example, Barry Bonds was never well-liked by anyone, so there was no — nothing there. There’s no goodwill that he could rely on, no reserve of goodwill that he could kind of call on.
I think for me, personally, Barry Bonds I thought it was — it had nothing to do with the fact people liked him or not. But I think there are a lot of fans and journalists who were not certainly looking to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Lance Armstrong, I think it’s a little bit more of a murky area there, because there are so many people still who look at him and say, I don’t care about all of that other stuff. You meant so much to me when I was fighting cancer.
I do think though the bravado and the belligerent attitude, the way he has fought this has turned a lot of people off. And now those who looked at him and said, but I put you up on a pedestal, you were better than everybody else, when you come crashing down from that high, when you’re expected to be a better person than others, than potentially others, and when Lance Armstrong has brought into that himself, then the fall is even more dramatic, I think.
RAY SUAREZ: How come American sports fans haven’t by now worn in some calluses on their hearts; they are still ready to embrace the next person who comes along and maybe be disappointed by them?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: You know, sports is still — many hope, is the escape from our reality. I think we could all make the strong case now that it is more a mirror of our society, that when you pick up the sports section or you go online and you turn on the sports news, you’re going to hear a lot about lockouts and contracts and steroids and misbehavior.
But I still think that sports fan, he or she is still the little kid who started out cheering at age five or six for whatever team they were cheering for. And they’re hoping that they can once again be inspired. And so they’re probably hoping for the escape from reality, even though the reality is that it’s much more a mirror of our society.
RAY SUAREZ: Christine Brennan, thanks a lot.
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Ray, thank you.