I know you’re all probably suffering Lance fatigue by now, but I read an article in The Guardian recently that I simply couldn’t let pass without comment. It discussed polls conducted before and after Lance Armstrong’s Oprah confession suggesting his public image might be in far better shape if he’d simply kept lying and denying.
The writer, Harry Enton, was in little doubt – his article was titled “Lance Armstrong’s Oprah PR disaster: polls show confessing is for losers”.
While Armstrong’s popularity took a massive hit last year as doping allegations intensified, his standing among the US public appeared to be improving prior to the Oprah interview. In October of last year, according to Enton’s article, 49% of American sports fans thought Armstrong should give his medals back. However, by early January 2013, that figure had fallen to only 37%.
In other words, before his Oprah appearance, the majority of Americans sided with Armstrong. And the direction of the trend suggests his approval rating may have continued to improve.
Post-Oprah SurveyUSA polls in Tampa Bay, Portland and San Diego show the majority of Americans (over 60%) believe Armstrong will never be able to restore his reputation, and around 40% believe he should never be allowed to compete again.
Armstrong’s admission has also opened the door to several multi-million dollar legal challenges. The US government is reportedly considering joining a “whistleblower” lawsuit launched by Armstrong’s former colleague, Floyd Landis, on the grounds that Armstrong, while riding for the US Postal Service team, defrauded the American taxpayer. The Sunday Times is set to try to recoup nearly £1m in damages and costs Armstrong was awarded after he sued it over allegations of doping. A Texas-based sports marketing firm is also suing Armstrong to get back millions of dollars in bonuses it paid out to the cyclist.
Meanwhile, the UCI is urging Armstrong to pay back his prize money, and even South Australian government officials are examining whether they can get back the hefty fees they paid him to appear in the Tour Down Under in 2009, 2010 and 2011 (bullshit-prolific South Australian Labor politicians resentful they were deceived? The irony!)
In addition to high-profile cases from governments and sporting organizations, there are also the predictable opportunistic class-action lawsuits from allegedly aggrieved plaintiffs. Two California men, for example, are attempting to sue Lance Armstrong and his publishers for fraud and false advertising, claiming the cyclist’s best-selling memoirs, which are billed as non-fiction, were revealed to be filled with lies when he confessed to systematic doping.
The named plaintiffs in the suit were Rob Stutzman, a public relations executive who served as a deputy chief of staff for former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jonathan Wheeler, a chef and amateur cyclist.
They said they had bought the books It’s Not About the Bike and Every Second Counts because they believed in Armstrong and his story of returning without drug assistance to the Tour de France after a nearly fatal bout with testicular cancer. Stutzman and Wheeler claim they felt “duped,” “cheated” and “betrayed” by the realization that the books, marketed as inspirational true-life memoirs, were “replete with fabrications”.
Perhaps most seriously, Armstrong’s confession opens up the possibility of prosecution for perjury after previously testifying under oath he had not taken drugs. Marion Jones, it should be pointed out, did jail time for pretty much the same offense.
Public Image versus Truthfulness
If previous research with American baseball players is anything to go by, the fact that Armstrong’s confession is failing to have the positive impact he hoped for is hardly surprising.
A 2008 review in the Journal of Sports Media by Michel Haigh found that, in the three years after the BALCO scandal, baseball players who apologized to their fans were no more likely to receive positive news coverage than those who didn’t. Strategies such as shifting blame and evading responsibility appeared to be just as effective in repairing a player’s tainted image as apologizing. Haigh examined the image repair strategies employed by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Gary Sheffield, Rafael Palmeiro and Jason Giambi. He found that from September 2003 through March 2006 most newspaper articles covering the scandal were negative and while Giambi and Palmeiro publicly apologized to their fans, it had no impact on the tone of the articles.
In 2010, Jessica Korn examined the public’s perception of Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens. Bonds and Clemens, who relied on denial and attacking the accuser in attempts at image repair, declined in favourability. But Rodriguez and McGwire (who fessed up in 2010) also experienced a decline in favourability immediately after apologizing for performance enhancing drug use.
The Great Armstrong Crap Shoot
Lance Armstrong has taken a huge gamble with his confession, and only time will reveal whether his strategy was a winner or a huge mistake.
As it stands now, public resentment and derision towards the cancer survivor and former Tour de France winner seems to be at an all-time high. Since his doping saga began, countless individuals have been charged and convicted of murder, rape, assault, and pedophilia. It would take a truly demented individual to claim taking anabolic and red blood cell-boosting drugs to enhance cycling performance is anywhere near the magnitude of wrongdoing as the aforementioned crimes, yet the reality is that in recent history few, if any, perpetrators of the aforementioned crimes have been subject to the same volume of global media attention and intensity of public scorn that Armstrong has.
The real issue at play here, therefore, is not the nature of Armstrong’s alleged wrongdoing, because it pales in comparison to the behaviour of countless other individuals who have done far worse and yet are receiving nowhere near the same attention. I suspect the outrage directed at Armstrong has a lot more to do with envy, self-righteousness and self-validation.
People love to align themselves with sporting celebrities, and often live vicariously through them by ‘supporting’ and barracking for them, which in turn imparts a shared feeling of achievement and success (despite the fact, of course, that the average sports fan does little to nothing to physically assist the sportsperson in achieving his or her successes).
But when famous sportspeople, and celebrities in general, come under attack for alleged wrongdoing, we quickly see another interesting – and ugly – aspect of human behaviour manifest itself. Commonly referred to as “Tall Poppy Syndrome”, it’s the tendency for humans to revel in the downfall of people who have achieved the kind of status and wealth they themselves will never achieve. If you can’t match someone else’s achievements, then the only way to assuage the insecurity and jealousy this triggers deep inside is to sit back and enjoy any subsequent misfortune that person suffers.
Not to mention that people love to moralize and feel superior, even when they themselves are hardly fit to be casting the first stone. I’ve personally observed individuals who snorted cocaine, took all manner of other dubious “party” drugs, and got blind drunk on nightclub outings who then turned their nose up and got all morally righteous when discussing the steroid use of athletes and bodybuilders. The irony still stuns me to this day.
If You’re Going to Confess, Make Sure You Put on a Good Show
According to Paul Harris, Armstrong’s big confession errors were:
“Didn’t cry properly
When high-profile guests appear on Oprah Winfrey’s show, they are expected to weep copiously as they reveal all. Someone as competitive as Armstrong knows that second place counts for nothing: his choking up and near-tears just did not cut it. America wanted rivers of tears.
Didn’t give a full confession
The only way to do a confession is to go all the way. Armstrong appeared to want to go only so far. He needed to name names and give full and frank details. But Armstrong seemed happy with generalities and still denies key allegations.
Didn’t lose the ‘attitude’
During the hours of interview, many commentators remarked on Armstrong’s controlled and emotionless demeanour. Armstrong needed to show he was human and worthy of sympathy and – most importantly of all – genuine. His performance came across as just that: something fake for the camera.
Played the victim
Armstrong seemed to break another cardinal rule of such confessions in having too much self-pity. At one point, he felt that he “deserved” a chance of a comeback. He had failed to understand that in the world of TV confessions that is not up to you any more.”
In other words, Lance Armstrong, failed to satiate the public’s hunger for a fallen hero to whimper and beg at their feet for forgiveness. Never one to wear his heart on his sleeve, his big sin was to not cry and not to engage in the usual emotional carry on the viewing public has come to expect when watching celebrity confessions. Despite unequivocally admitting to drug use and even freely acknowledging he routinely behaved like a complete asshole, people are pissed because he maintained a stoic demeanour instead of delivering a well-trained and polished performance designed by a well-heeled team of PR consultants to maximize public empathy.
As for the complaint that Armstrong’s confession didn’t go “far enough” and name names…get a grip, for crying out loud. This was an Oprah interview, folks, not a Senate hearing.
The Bottom Line
It’s a truly sad state of affairs when telling the truth garners you poorer status among your fellow Earthlings than lying, but such is the nature of the human animal…
It’s also rather sad to witness the perennial and somewhat morbid human trait of taking delight in the misfortune of formerly successful individuals, all the while ignoring far more important issues. This is a fascination that governments are only too happy to exploit. Keep the masses stupefied, entertained and distracted with overblown celebrity ‘scandals’ and ‘controversies’, and the real crooks can keep running amok, expanding their wealth and power while gradually stripping the public of more and more of its basic freedoms. Do it right, and they won’t even notice. They’ll be too busy jeering at doping athletes and fallen celebrities, complaining about the price of beer, and gawking at tits on Youtube.
Anthony Colpo is an independent researcher, physical conditioning specialist, and author of The Fat Loss Bible and The Great Cholesterol Con. For more information, visit TheFatLossBible.net or TheGreatCholesterolCon.com
Copyright © Anthony Colpo.
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