I wrote this op-ed in 2013 for my school newspaper. It won some award, so I’m posting it here for posterity.
You don’t care about Lance Armstrong. You didn’t care that he won seven Tour de France titles, raised millions of dollars for cancer, or that he divorced Sheryl Crow. And now, you definitely don’t care that he cheated his way to the top.
This past school year, a widespread cheating racket at highly selective Stuyevant High School in New York was exposed. Students confessed to texting during tests, taking photos of exams and using elaborate tapping systems to communicate answers across the room. Similar to Armstrong’s situation, success here was a numbers game. The minuscule difference between a 94 and a 95 grade point average might mean the difference going to Harvard and a state university.
For Lance, success and failure was measured by hundredths of a second. Listen, no one took notice of Lance until he was on about Le Tour de France number four. No one took notice of cycling until a man overcame testicular cancer to compete in the sport’s biggest event. Name one other cyclist. I dare you. That’s why he took performance-enhancing drugs; the man who should have been dead had nothing to lose.
Livestrong Lance has raised over $470 million for cancer so far, more than any one this side of Susan G. Komen. That should be his legacy.
Much the same way, those kids at Stuyevant had nothing to lose. So what if they get caught cheating? They’ll end up at Big State U where they would have ended up if they didn’t try to cheat their way to the top of the class. And good for them if they don’t get caught- they’re the unfortunate product of the cruel social Darwinism that has developed in many arenas. Like Lance, they are pressured to win and have been taught to stop at nothing to achieve this goal. They are not taught the value of learning; they are taught the value of appeasing those in charge, by any means necessary.
How do we stop it though? You virtuous folk attending 9 p.m. mass are certainly begging the question now. Ours is a culture that values the ruthless hero, the uncompromising athlete, he who makes it to the top any way required. Not only was Steve Jobs a visionary entrepreneur, he was also kind of an asshole by most accounts. Same goes for you, Michael Jordan and Donald Trump. Et tu, Mr. Facebook (and don’t get mad if you’re watching me).
Much the way the iPod and iPhone have become part of Jobs’ legacy, so too has his abrasiveness. It’s okay to be caustic, rude and unsympathetic, as long as one makes it to the top. So, kids at Stuyevant stop at nothing to be one of the select few who are accepted to Harvard or Princeton. And can you blame them? People wouldn’t take notice otherwise, much the same way Armstrong would have been just another feel-good story for Oprah’s couch. They all take notice of what our culture values and stop at nothing to meet those expectations. In a world that increasingly defines success and failure by arbitrarily assigned numbers, these people have fought back at the system, gaming the institutions that have gamed them for so many years.
We beg our children from a young age to idolize these people, and then throw a John McEnroe-like fit and act confused when they emulate these very heroes. Above all, ours is a culture much too enthralled with sporting competition. Our little sluggers are taught that hitting home runs is more important than getting good grades. Many universities and colleges spend more on athletics than academics. Our sporting heroes rise higher and fall harder than anyone else.
In the height of the election season, society does its best to turn the candidates into athlete-like figures, putting them in a ring surrounded by thousands of onlookers on primetime television. They’re judged primarily on body language, ability to assert themselves as alpha-males and the size of their flag pin.
How does society chance from so naively optimistic to utterly pessimistic in regards to Armstrong with the stroke of a 200-page report filed by the United States Anti-Doping Agency? Apparently everyone was gullible enough to think that a man with one testicle could hop on a bike and ride through the French Alps faster than everyone else in a sport notorious for its doping problems. Seven times in a row. When Le Lance was stripped of his seven titles, a new champion was not even named because 20 of the 21 men who finished on the podium in those years had been tied to doping.
In the movie “Gladiator,” set as Rome is about to meet its final demise, a senator says, “The heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, but the sand of the Colosseum.” The Senator’s name might as well have been John Kerry. As long as a circus is on prime-time television, the people are appeased.
Unfortunately for Lance, he met his final demise by living out this maxim. His story is a microcosm of the culture we have created. He did anything to reach the pinnacle, and then it came crashing down on him all at once. And we sit around wondering how this house of cards of success and prosperity we created came tumbling down.