By now many are familiar with the saga of Lance Armstrong and the doping scandal plaguing the cycling world. It’s an all too familiar story, sadly common in many sports both amateur and professional. The names are easily recognizable: Bonds, McGwire, Johnson, Jones, etc., and the pattern all too familiar: deny, deny, deny, then in the face of insurmountable evidence, admit wrongdoing but justify it on the grounds that everyone else is doing it. The repercussions of doping have done considerable damage to the image of sports. But perhaps the greater cost has been to society at large. We’re rapidly losing our sports role-models and heroes, those rare stars who once shone brightly in one of history’s oldest character-building enterprises. And because we’ve always depended in some way on our heroes to inspire us, their disappearance will most certainly cost us.
Now I know there are plenty there are plenty of things in modern culture that we can point the finger at with respect to all the scandals in sports. There’s the pressure to win and win at all costs; the pressure not to disappoint fans and sponsors; and the lure of big money, prestige, and fame. But the fact is that cultural values don’t just spring out of nowhere. They arise out of the collective sentiments of individuals. As I mention in Character Disturbance, we’re in the midst of a character crisis the likes of which we’ve not seen before, it’s not surprising that a culture has arisen that not only “enables” but also even encourages what was once regarded as “un-sportsperson-like conduct.” And the winning is everything attitude has affected all sports enterprises at every level: from the kids’ weekend soccer teams to high school and college football. We’ve given up the notion that team enterprises are primarily meant for learning to channel energy and power in a disciplined and productive way and to build character through perseverance and striving for excellence.
I’ve written many articles about the kinds of personalities that value winning over everything. And in my book In Sheep’s Clothing I take a hard look at the disturbed characters who are not at all what they appear. For many impaired characters, it’s getting to the top and staying there that matters, not how they get there or what they make of themselves in the process. And for years, as a society, we’ve unfortunately done a whole lot to encourage the proliferation and solidification of that kind of mindset. For many character-impaired athletes, if they can’t seem to get where they want to go through honest, faithful effort and perseverance, the solution is simple: cheat. What’s worse, because it’s far more important to maintain an image than to be genuine (i.e. “Image is everything!), they’re not so much concerned about the cheating per se as opposed to being careful not to get caught for doing it. Besides, if you do get caught, you can still save some face by pointing to the fact that pretty much everyone else is “dirty” in some way, too.
Perhaps some of you can remember offering the same lame excuse for your misbehavior to your mother or father only to have them retort with something like: Well, if Johnny (or Sherry) wants to jump off the bridge does that mean you have to also? And that speaks to the timeless issue at the heart of the real character: we always have a choice about what we do, and despite our protest that we’re only trying to level the playing field because everyone else is doing it, we choose to cheat because there’s essentially something we ourselves want and because there are some prices we are and aren’t willing to pay for to get it. Our parents’ sarcastic admonition wasn’t for the purpose of downplaying the social pressures we can sometimes face, but rather to force the issue of personal responsibility, the most essential part of forging sound character.
Every action has a consequence, not just to ourselves but also to society at large. Our more dominant cultural values and norms have changed because more and more of us are displaying character-impaired behavior such as cheating. And as the social climate further erodes, more such behavior will most likely occur. It’s a classic vicious cycle. And such a cycle can only be broken at the weakest link in the chain. It’s our individual hearts and minds that must be converted. No blaming others, and no claims of victim status. Each of us needs to start playing fair again, and with principle. And we’d better encourage each other to do it pretty soon. From the kind of big business shenanigans that caused the world’s economy to collapse to the scandals that continue to rock the sports world, our cheating and other character-impaired behavior has gotten out of hand and has cost us all dearly. When our major life endeavors stop being mostly about the money, prestige, and power, and we see fit to regard them as character-building enterprises, we can be great again.